At a Glance
Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter tells the story of David Henry, who, unbeknownst to his wife, gives their newborn daughter Phoebe with Down syndrome to Caroline Gill, the nurse attending at Phoebe’s birth, so that she can take the baby to an institution. Caroline decides to raise Phoebe herself but doesn’t tell the Henrys. Thus begins the story of two parallel families: the Henry family, whose externally attractive life is hindered by David’s secret sin; and the Gill family, drawn together by Caroline’s world-changing power of love, compassion, and courage.
Written by: Kim Edwards
Type of Work: Novel
Genre: Literary Fiction
First Published: 2005
Setting (primary): Lexington, Kentucky; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Settings (secondary): West Virginia; Paris, France
Main Characters: David Henry, Norah Henry, Caroline Gill, Phoebe Henry (Gill), Paul Henry
Major Thematic Topics: Disability, close compassion versus distanced control, secrets and their consequences
Major Symbols: Snow, bones, fossils, photographs, cameras, water, music
Movie Versions: Jaffe/Braunstein Entertainment LLC, 2008
The three most important aspects of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter: One important aspect of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is the author’s exploration of close compassion versus distanced control. David Henry struggles to cross interpersonal distance and practice the vulnerability necessary for true empathy and love. His insistence on control makes anything he can’t control a threat to his and his family’s wellbeing. Phoebe, his thematic opposite, practices immediate care and love toward everyone and everything she meets. The hallmark of this love is a willing embrace of change and the unexpected encounters and accidents in life. These two poles of control and compassion are represented by various symbols throughout the book. Symbols of control include bones, stones, snow, and photography. Symbols of compassion include water, other liquids, and music.
A second important aspect of the novel is society’s misunderstanding and stigmatization of mental wellness. Characters in the novel with challenges of several types struggle to find community and understanding. Phoebe in particular faces obstacles blocking her entrance into public education and access to health care. But she is not the only one. Her birth mother Norah’s depression is swept under the rug, the elderly Leo’s dementia is misunderstood, and even the teenage angst of Phoebe’s twin, Paul, goes unacknowledged by all but the most caring characters. The novel poses an important question: What would happen if we rebuilt the world so that it included rather than excluded people with different mental capacities?
A third important aspect is the depiction of changing and conflicting gender roles. The main characters struggle, often unknowingly, to navigate society’s contradictory demands on men and especially on women. David performs all of the “traditional” duties of a father and husband—providing financially for his family and protecting them physically—but he fails to connect with them because he doesn’t know how to process his traumas. Norah attempts to be the perfect mother, and when that fails, she tries to become a career woman. Caroline feels drawn toward traditional motherhood and feels hurt when she cannot achieve it. Paul, like his father, struggles to find an outlet for his frustration and anger. At every turn, the characters find their choices limited by gender expectations.