It’s 1964, and amid a blizzard, and despite that fact that he’s an orthopedist, Dr. David Henry has just delivered his wife’s first child – a healthy, beautiful, perfect baby boy – Paul. Much to his surprise, a second baby is born as well. This time, a baby girl with Down Syndrome. In a spur of the moment decision, with his wife unaware, Dr. Henry asks Caroline Gill, the nurse assisting with the delivery, to take the girl away to an institution. As Caroline makes the long drive to the institution, she can’t help but feel how wrong the whole situation is. And when she gets there, she can’t go through with it. Caroline and Phoebe leave, setting up a new life of their own in a new town, far away from anyone who might recognize them.
Meanwhile, Norah Henry spends the next 25 years believing that her daughter died at birth. Over the years, the pain hasn’t lessened. In fact, as she watches Paul grow up, she can’t help but imagine what Phoebe might have been like if she’d lived. Would she have his same love of music? Would she be as headstrong as he is? Would she be athetically inclined, like him? Or maybe she’d be completely different. Norah and Dr. Henry grow apart as his secret wedges its way between them. When Dr. Henry gave Phoebe to Caroline, he thought he would be saving his wife a lifetime of heartache. He never imagined that he would ruin their marriage.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is one of those books that sticks with you. While I was reading it, and still now, days later, I’m wondering what I would do if I were any of the characters.
How would I react if my husband told me my child had died at birth, and that he didn’t want a memorial service or any kind of formal burial? Would I be suspicious? Or would I just accept it? Could I live with a man who didn’t want me to discuss the heartache of the loss of a child?
What if I were in Caroline’s shoes? Would I be able to deliver a baby to an institution as ordered? Would I have the strength to raise a baby – with special needs, no less – all by myself, in secret, away from all my family and friends? Would I tell the mother, or would I keep it quiet as the father requested?
It’s easy to say that you’d do the right thing. You’d tell the mother. You’d question your husband. But what reason would you have to believe that your husband lied to you, that your baby wasn’t really dead? And as the nurse, wouldn’t you be concerned that the mother might call the police, that you might be charged with kidnapping, that the father might retaliate against you?
It’s hard to say that I enjoyed this book, because I’m not really sure if I did. How much can you enjoy a book that punches you in the gut and rips your heart out? But the story is good, and I kept coming back for more. A little each day, because I couldn’t handle much more than that. This book is definitely not for everyone, and at other times in my life, I probably would have liked it less. Thankfully, I read this one at the right time.
Final rating: ★★★★☆
For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #17: a book a friend recommended.