The story begins during a blizzard in Kentucky in 1964. Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver his own twins, a boy and a girl, at his office. He immediately recognizes that the girl has Down Syndrome and gives her to his nurse, Caroline to take to an institution. After getting to the institution, Caroline, a self proclaimed "spinster," decides to take the child and raise her as her own. For his part, David tells his wife that their daughter died. What follows is a novel, told in third person omniscient from many of the parties' points of view, that traces the lives of these two families over 25 years.
Our discussion began with the group's thoughts on the birth and giving away of Phoebe. People were shocked; however, this mostly older group kept mentioning that they remembered those days, and David's thoughts and actions were somewhat understandable. They gave him some leeway on his initial response, but they all agreed that when he confronted Caroline just before she disappeared with Phoebe, he should have taken Phoebe back. In other words, they were more shocked that he didn't come to his senses a few days later.
Which leads me to the discussion of if David could have ever told his family the truth. Most agreed that he would have had to have done it within the first few years. Once we see the families again around Paul and Phoebe's 5th year, David is stuck with the secret.
Surprisingly to me, the group also did not seem to hold Caroline as responsible for any wrongdoing, even though she basically kidnapped a child and helped to fake its death. Caroline got much more sympathy than Daivd. One participant mentioned that since Caroline had a birth memory of Phoebe (i.e. was present at her birth) she was as much her mother and more her memory keeper than Norah. That led to a discussion of the title. Of course David is the memory keeper referred to because of his role in the secret and his work as a photographer. However, many people felt Caroline also served as the memory keeper, especially after David's death.
Caroline drew a lot more sympathy than Norah. Again I was surprised. Norah was a victim and didn't even know it. She was in an uphill battle against an emotionally detached husband, who behavior was incomprehensible to her until after his death when she had already been divorced from him for many years. One participant could not get past Norah's affairs.
Overall, one person summed it all up by mentioning the theme of emotional isolation throughout the novel and how the author reinforces it through imagery and situations. As she said, "the truth will set you free."
Last comments: They loved the multiple points of view, agreed the ending was a bit wishy-washy, but could have been much worse, and although we had a wonderful discussion, the average rating of the book overall was about 3 out of 5. This was definitely a case of the book being great for discussion, but not as well enjoyed in isolation. This probably explains why the novel was overlooked until its publication in paperback and use in discussion groups.
There are many ways to go in order to identify readalikes for this novel. For those who liked the serious family issues dealt with by exploring multiple points of view should try My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, which has been explored on this blog previously at this link. For the readers who want another popular book discussion title about family secrets and the scars they leave, with a more satisfying ending try Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. Here a young, white girl escapes her abusive father and the secrets surrounding her mother's death to find refuge with a group of strong black women in 1960s Georgia.
Finally, for something a bit different, yet very similar in major appeal factors, try to the Gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This book has an even wider epic scope than the 25 years in The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Vida Winter is England’s most popular and most mysterious author. As she faces her own mortality, Winter is finally willing to divulge her biggest secrets and chooses Margaret Lea, a rare bookseller, to be her biographer. As Winter’s life story is slowly unraveled, Lea gets caught up in the tale of ghosts, lies, and half-truths and is forced to come to terms with some of her own family secrets. All of the secrets her also involve twins and one deals with an abandoned child. Although this is a Gothic tale, with a more menacing atmosphere than The Memory Keeper's Daughter, I really feel the overall issues and feelings explored are very similar.
For nonfiction readalikes sticking to books on Downs Syndrome, Photography, Pittsburgh and Kentucky are all avenues readers may like to explore. There are many titles on these topics, but the one I found the most interesting is Gifts: Mothers Reflect on How Children With Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives edited by Kathryn Lynard. This book looks like it would parallel many of Caroline and her friends' experiences.