Review: THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Kim Edwards

27Jan10

Title: THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER
Author: Kim Edwards
Publisher: Penguin
Year Published: 2006

Recommended: No. I know plenty of people love it, but I found very, very little to appreciate in this novel, and given its length (400 dense pages with obese paragraphs) it’s quite an investment for so little pay-off.

Spoilers: In the second-to-last paragraph, although I don’t think knowing some of the basics of the ending makes that much of a difference to the story.

As part of a personal challenge to myself, I am making an effort this year to read more literary/realistic fiction–somewhat loosely defined, as I’m including YA fiction that qualifies, where I normally keep YA in its own, separate category. I’m trying to keep the proportion at about 25%–one in four. I hit book number four and realized I didn’t have a lit fic book out from the library, so I did the rare shelf-scrounge and came up with something lent to my mother: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

I was predisposed to dislike this book, mainly because of the title. The ______’s Daughter or The ________’s Wife, etc, was used originally to title folk tales because the women had no names; their characters were defined by their relations, usually men. The popularity of this scheme is troubling to me for that reason; the central characters are not defined by themselves, but rather by the men (and sometimes women) in their lives. When’s the last time you saw The ________’s Son, or The _______’s Husband? I can’t think of a single such title, though I’m sure there are a few. Men define themselves. Women must be defined in relation to others.

But titles are often not within the control of the author, and even if they are I’m willing to cut a book some slack. There are some truly abysmal titles attached to some wonderful books out there. So I dove in.

The opening of the book is intense and gripping–mostly. Even knowing the eventual outcome of the night (revealed in the cover copy), I was engaged in the emotional and rational processes spinning through the minds of the two people involved in the central conspiracy; a father who recognizes that his daughter has Down Syndrome and orders her taken to an institution, telling his wife that the child was stillborn, and a nurse who can’t bear to leave the child in such a place and instead takes her to raise as her own child.

Even in these opening pages, though, I felt like I was drowning in details; time skips back and forth with unnecessary flashbacks, and descriptions are so dense and intricate that the thread of the story gets lost. This trend never lets up, to the point where I found myself skimming for the last 300 pages of the book; there’s simply too much on the page, which might be pretty but doesn’t move the story forward. Some small details, seemingly mundane, can indeed lend psychological depth to a story, but overall MKD just seems to be trying to hard, creating the illusion of depth but only achieving muddiness.

The story covers a full quarter-century, necessitating quite a bit of skipping around. I found the choices of what to summarize and what to detail very puzzling–such as a page to describe a decade-long battle for disability rights and equal education, and then a full chapter devoted to mundane daily tasks. The time jumps themselves were formatted oddly; a section would start with a year (such as 1988) on a page of its own, and then the first chapter would have a full date–March 13, 1988 or something of the sort. But chapter two in the 1988 section might be an entirely different year, and the reader won’t find out until someone’s death or divorce is mentioned in passing. When the central secret of the novel is finally revealed, the secret-keeper has been dead for a year, and all is resolved with tears and hugs and moving to France. The story seemed to all happen off-stage.

I only finished the book out of sheer stubbornness and my need to keep my 25% in tact. Otherwise, I probably would have stopped before the halfway mark. Perhaps around the time that I learned that the titular “Memory Keeper” is the brand-name of a camera. A camera which is only truly important as an annoying hobby. I felt all along the story was insisting that the photos had deep symbolic meaning, but I never bought it; they were lost in a sea of detail that was all, I’m sure, intended to be deeply meaningful, and in the end they were just pictures. And really? A brand-name? There’s no poetry in that.

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