Monday, June 28, 2010

Two in One

Yet again, late-comer to the bandwagon, I am reading The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards, published in 2005 and a NYT bestseller in 2006. The cover kind of reminds me of Number the Stars, the YA book by Lois Lowry - the negative photographic effect of it.

This book had a lot going against it in terms of my personal reading tastes. It is heavily contemporary, far too literary for the summer (you know I do a lot of chick lit, action/adventure in the summer), in the adult section, and also about morally uncomfortable topics, in this case, what is best for children with disabilities like Down Syndrome. On a blizzarding night, Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver his own twins. A boy is born healthy, but the girl is born with Down syndrome. In a split-second decision, he tells the nurse to take girl away to an institution, but the nurse keeps the baby to raise as her own. The doctor lies to his wife by telling her the girl died.

Now, you know this book is good because it was simply one of the books shelved in the cabin we stayed at in Tennessee. My dad picked it off the shelf, and I casually read the first chapter. It had me by the end of the first page. I wasn't planning on finishing it, but I saw it at Borders the other day and the compulsion was too great, so I bought it.

The story is essentially told in two parts: the story of David and Norah Henry and how their marriage slowly deteriorates from the strain of the ever-constant phantasm of the mysterious girl baby (Phoebe), and Caroline Gill, the nurse who raises Phoebe. I have read several books like this, books that are split-POV among two major characters. This is the advantage of third person, that you can flutter from one character to another and maybe give a genuinely interesting facet of the story you might otherwise lack. If I remember correctly, this is how Weronika's Where The Doves Fly was originally formatted in the early stages. However, I feel like this kind of story-telling often suffers from a great weakness. That is, one of the storylines is weaker than the other.

Sometimes, this can be a good thing because it keeps the audience in suspense. You can build the tension in the separate story lines and it is multiplied because the reader has to read each part in alternation. On the other hand, this can also get really annoying if you don't particularly care for one storyline. In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, I was far more interested in David and Norah's story. Caroline's started out very slowly in the beginning. The relationship between the married couple is pitch perfect and the slow worm that eats away at the marriage is painfully real and well-portrayed. Caroline and Phoebe just don't seem to be given the same thorough character treatment for a good quarter of the book until their story picks up.

So as of now, I am still on the fence about this method of story-telling. Opinions? Love it or hate it, the two in one technique? (Usually, by the end, these two storylines converge, and it is sometimes satisfying in itself just to see how the author pulls that together.)

By the way, I haven't finished it yet, so if you have read it, please don't spoil the end for me! I'm trying to read it as slowly as possible; I tend to rush things that are really good. The writing itself is delicate and beautiful - the kind of writing that has fellow writers gasping for delight at the sheer joy of digesting the words. Kim Edwards is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, so THERE'S a surprise.


  1. This looks like an awesome book. Thanks for the review. :)

    I think the storytelling depends on the story. Each story is different and has different needs. Some of mine have multiple POVs, some alternating, and some stick to one POV. I think it's all in how the story needs to be told. :)

  2. I agree with Danyelle that it depends on the needs of the story. Sometimes, I like getting like different aspects of the same overarching plotline and waiting for all the POVs to cross paths. But I totally agree with you about the pitfall of alternating POVs. There are some books where I cannot wait for the story to switch back to the POV I liked more.

  3. Yeah, I sometimes feel the same, which usually leads to me skimming through the section that's less interesting.

    Sarah Waters, in her book Fingersmith, tells the story of two girls from 2 1st person povs (one past tense, one present), but they are large chunks of the book, not just a few chapters, and the second part reveals all the secrets hidden in the first part.

    The writing is just riveting.

    I write alternating 1st person povs sometimes, but it's hard for me to write third and properly get into the characters's heads, so I applaud those who do it well.

  4. I tend to like third person story telling best, but I'm ok with first person too.
    The plot of the book reminded me very strongly of a Brazilian soap from 2006 that aired here in my country a couple of years ago, it was called "Paginas da vida" (Pages of life). I think they might have been inspired in the book, but I don't see that they give the author any credit anywhere :S The main difference is that the twins' mother dies in childbirth, and it's her mother who decides to give the little girl up for adoption, telling everyone that she was born dead. It's the doctor who delivers the kids who adopts her. Brazilian soaps are known to have amazing character treatment, so if they really took after The Memory Keeper's Daughter, at least they did that well.
    I've been looking for some books to read now, in my winter break, specially soma YA fantasy. A friend recommended Louise Cooper's Indigo saga. Have you read the books? :)

  5. Ladyeni - Nope, I haven't read those before, but if you read them and they're good, please let me know! I'm looking for good books too. :)