Kim Edwards

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

  • 78-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 24 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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The Memory Keeper’s Daughter Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 78-page guide for “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 24 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Dichotomy of Light and The Importance of Sight.

Plot Summary

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a work of fiction written by Kim Edwards and published in 2005. The story follows the harrowed marriage of David and Norah, beginning with the birth of their twins, Paul and Phoebe, in 1964. Conflict immediately emerges within the novel as Phoebe is born with Down’s Syndrome and David decides to give her away rather than have his wife and himself face the pain of their daughter dying early like his younger sister, June, did when he was a teenager. Neither David nor his parents got over the loss of June, who also had Down’s Syndrome. As a result, David decides to give Phoebe to Caroline, his medical assistant who is in love with him, telling Norah that their daughter died in childbirth. This event introduces the main conflict within the novel, as David’s secret creates a wall between himself and his family.

Believing that Phoebe has died, Norah is in anguish over the loss of her daughter, feeling her absence as tangible grief within the house. She becomes incredibly depressed and starts drinking heavily as a way to palliate her grief. Similarly, Paul grows up feeling as though their family is always missing someone, as he feels the distance this creates between himself and his father as well as between his father and his mother. Paul feels as though he cannot connect with his father, and this anger eventually evolves into a passion for guitar.

At the same time, Caroline—having moved with Phoebe to Pittsburgh, away from David and Norah—has undertaken the difficulty of raising a child with Down’s Syndrome by herself. She eventually finds work as an in-house medical caretaker for a brilliant but senile incorrigible curmudgeon, Leo, and befriends his daughter, Doro. She creates a network of other parents whose children have Down’s Syndrome, working to achieve educational equality. She also meets Al, a goodhearted trucker, who she eventually falls in love with and marries, although she always worries that he will leave her and Phoebe.

David wears his past like a weight which he refuses to share with the rest of his family. This creates familial tension, eventually resulting in Norah’s multiple affairs and Paul’s attempt to run away. David takes pictures as a way to try and pin down his family, which he knows is slipping away from him, and gains fame for his photography. However, he and Norah ultimately divorce after he brings home a pregnant teenage runaway who was living in his family’s abandoned house. Throughout the narrative, David and Caroline correspond about Phoebe, although Caroline stops writing and refuses to tell David where she and Phoebe live, fearing that David will take Phoebe away.

The novel concludes with David’s death, at which point Caroline finds Norah and tells her about Phoebe. Norah and Paul are reunited with Phoebe, who does not seem to understand the situation and is happy living with Caroline and Al as her parents. Norah and Paul begin building a relationship with Phoebe, who is reticent, believing that they will take her away from Caroline and Al, the people she conceives of as her parents. By the end of the novel, Paul decides to take a job in Pittsburgh to reconnect with his sister while his mother moves away to France with her new husband.

The narrative is told from the limited perspective of four main characters: David, Norah, Caroline, and Paul; as a result, the reader often knows more than any of the characters within the novel. This creates tension within the novel, as much of the novel revolves around the problems associated with silence and secrecy. The author routinely implies that silence and secrecy beget conflict, and knowledge of the past seems to be the only way to prevent future suffering. It is this inability to share in the past that creates a rift between David and the rest of the characters, who can only be healed and find peace and closure once David dies and his secrets are revealed.

At the same time, the majority of the novel is set in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when America itself was dealing with the painful secrets of its history. The chronology of the novel reiterates the importance of sharing in a true version of history, however dark it may be, and the necessity to face past injustices in order for society to heal. The setting of the novel is also important for the plot, as few options were available for children with Down’s Syndrome in the 20th century. Although this does not justify David’s decision to give away his daughter and lie to his wife, it does shed some clarity on his reasoning, as he believes that her existence—and soon, her death—will only cause him and his family more pain. Similarly, the readers see Caroline’s struggle as she fights to have Phoebe educated, creating her own support network as a pioneer of children’s rights. Caroline must constantly work against an educational system and a society that sees Phoebe as inherently different from other children; Caroline herself struggles to understand what is best for her child, desiring both that she be afforded the same opportunities but also concerned with what she feels like are Phoebe’s limitations.

This kind of inter conflict embodies the heart of the novel, which creates a thematic thread of dichotomy throughout it. The novel presents the world as a kind of battle between opposing forces: secrecy and truth, dark and light, women and men. This strife then reiterates the opposing factions evidenced within the narrative’s historical context, as the 1960s and 1970s presented a time in which America succumbed to an ideological civil war, wherein the notions of the past conflicted with others’ desire for progress. In this way, the narrative of the story follows the historical context within which it is set, demonstrating the depth to which social issues affect the lives and decisions of individuals.

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