Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I started out liking this book a lot, but by the end I had changed my mind. The premise is interesting: it is 1964, and a father (who is also a doctor), upon discovering that one of his newborn twins has Down syndrome, sends the infant off with a nurse (Caroline) to a “home for the feeble-minded” and tells his wife that the child has died. The nurse (just following directions?) takes the child to the home, is appalled by the conditions there, and flees with the baby. The rest of the book follows these two families as the father (David) lives with the consequences of his lie and Caroline raises the baby as her own child.

This is an interesting premise for a book, but the author’s execution left me frustrated. She repeats herself endlessly, continually ruminating over David's decision to send away the child, like she’s picking a scab. I think she is trying to illustrate David’s continuing guilt, his inability to let the event go, his perseveration, if you will. But it was too much, and I wanted to scream “I get it already!!!” by the end.

She also spends a lot of time on the origins of David’s decision (the early death of his sister, who had a heart condition, and the grief her death caused his mother). David sees himself as trying to protect his wife from similar grief, but his self-delusion didn't sway me. The author, Kim Edwards, also tries to convince us of the relative normalcy of David’s initial decision to lock the child away by making the case that Down syndrome children were often institutionalized. Yet I couldn’t really summon any sympathy for David. We are also supposed to admire Caroline for her bravery in raising Phoebe (the Down syndrome baby); yet this is a woman who was too passive to stand up to the doctor and tell his wife the truth about her child.

Was it really the rule to institutionalize Down syndrome children in the mid 1960’s? I know it was before the days of widespread access to the public schools, but I certainly remember knowing such children, children who lived with their own families. Were doctors and nurses really trained to view such children as better off dead, as the author implies? I’m sure she did her research, so I suppose it must be true, but nevertheless it doesn’t jibe with my memories of the era, and the relative prevalence of these attitudes doesn’t forgive the attendant behavior. I just couldn’t get beyond that.

I am using the term Down Syndrome, as recommended by the National Down Syndrome Society. The author uses Down’s Syndrome, which is the British term, yet this isn’t a British book. I'm not sure if it’s an error or a choice, but it also irritated me.

(Book 4, 2008)

8 comments:

trish said...

Dang! I'm sorry you didn't like it. I enjoyed it a lot, but I could definitely see your points in how the author harped on certain things. :-)

Katie said...

This is one of those books that everyone seems to like; I'm so glad to see you agreed with me! I have a cousin with Down Syndrome, and for a year and a half I was caregiver to a child with special needs and this book outraged me. You are right, the premise is good, but all in all, it wasn't a spectacular piece of fiction.

Susan B. said...

Very interesting take on this. And you are right -- many people raised their kids with Down Syndrome. We've all seen elderly parents out shopping with their middle-aged Down child.

A high-powered doctor might be more likely to send away a "defective" child, though.

I haven't felt any great desire to read this book myself, but now that I've read your review, I don't think I'm missing much.

Doreen Orion said...

I recently finished this book. I really liked the writing, but also had a problem with elements of the plot. For me, the relationship between David and his wife before he gave up their baby wasn't explored enough to really offer that much of a contrast with what happened to it afterward. It seemed like they never really connected, anyway. So, the impact of his giving up their baby was a bit watered down for me.

Becky said...

Doreen, I think that's a really good point. Though we do learn that he has been lying to her all along about other things too, like his origins, and even his name. So already, before the baby is born, there is this element of dishonesty in their relationship.

Stephanie said...

I read this book last year and didn't care for it. I think this is one of those love it or hate it type books.

Doreen Orion said...

In case anyone's interested...

Lifetime is premiering the movie based on this book on 4/12.

It's always puzzling to me when movies are made of books whose strengths were the writing. (MAP OF THE WORLD by Jane Hamilton comes to mind. Becky - I don't know if you read it, but it's one of my all time favorites.)

I'm going to Tivo the movie, anyway. Since I also write screenplays, it's interesting to see adaptations of books I've read. (My husband says this makes it insufferable to watch such movies with me. Oh, well.)

Jenny said...

um, obviously the term Down's syndrome is not only used by the British, it's what it's called today. what do you prefer, mogolism?
Edwards did not imply that she thought kids with Down's should be institutionalized, she actually led a literary workshop with them and she is telling a story about one, which doesnt mean she's trying to diss them or anything.
seriously though, everyone, could you write any better?
this book isn't one of my favourites but there were no biased points of view that i could detect. if YOU did your research, it was very, very common for doctors in the 1900s to do so. i hope you knew that in Germany they tried to kill them off.

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