Monday, September 15, 2008

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I was pretty disappointed in this book. I felt like I was reading one of those bad "women's" movies on the Lifetime channel, or even a soap opera. Everyone was sad/angry, everyone was hiding something, nothing good EVER happened to anyone (and any sort of 'good' event was accompanied by a subtext of impending doom - you could almost hear the sad music in the background!). I also have to refute one of the blurbs on the cover, that gushed about the author's beautiful, nearly poetic language. Huh? What book was that about - certainly not this one! (If you want a book that is absolutely beautifully written, read Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton - which is also one of the most moving books I've ever read!)

In this book, Edwards follows the life of a family "with a secret" (cue the violins), from the early 1960's to present-day. The big secret (which is no spoiler) is that during the birth of their first child, it was actually twins, though the girl was born with Down Syndrome. The husband - a doctor - hid this fact from his wife (who was under anesthesia), and passed off the daughter to his nurse and told her to put the girl in an institution. He tells his wife that the girl died, and doesn't mention Downs Syndrome. From this point on, the wife feels "something is missing", the father feels guilty, and the boy grows up wondering why his father hates him.

Of course, the nurse does not put the girl in an institution, but raises her by herself. When the novel was following these two, I enjoyed it the most. It seemed the most authentic, both emotionally and factually. (Having worked with kids with Downs, I have to commend Edwards for really getting it right.)

Unfortunately, the bulk of the book follows our "doomed" family, with pretty contrived 'symbolism' of the father's impressionistic photography. We see the usual fallout from "secrets": alcohol abuse, depression, adultery, teen angst, etc. It was all a bit too melodramatic for my tastes. I never related to any of the characters (with the possible exception of the nurse), and just kept wanting to scream "get over it!".

Thankfully, the book was short and I "got over it" very quickly. ;-)

Not one I'd recommend, nor an author I'll probably read again.

Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

This is the 2nd Stegner book I've read (the first being Angle of Repose), and I think I liked this one even better. Stegner writes beautiful prose, even when dealing with rather grim circumstances, as in this book. One also senses a deeper undercurrent of meaning than just the surface plot. Both of these things kept me reading through some pretty agonizing events in the characters' lives.

The book relates the tale of one family, in the early 1900's, attempting to make a go of it in the American (and Canadian) West. The husband/father is always chasing after the one great deal that will put them on easy street, consequently the family is constantly uprooted and experiences some pretty tough times. They go from city to city, looking for the pot of gold, and never finding it. When they do manage to find a pretty good thing, it's never quite good enough, so off they go again.

Not only are their economic circumstances rough, but the family dynamics are also quite hard. The father is somewhat abusive, and the mother 'stands by her man' throughout most of it. (Though one point, when his abuse moves beyond verbal and becomes physical to one of the boys, she finally puts her foot down.) I was often torn between admiration for the strength of her love for him, and disappointment, that she did keep trying to make it work, when clearly he was never going to change. But Stegner never portrays the father as wholly bad or evil, and we can see what drives this character to do the things he does.

I think this book is really about the 'great American dream' of making it rich, and how chasing such a dream is ultimately destructive. It's also about the loss of a way of life, when the West became tamed and 'civilized', and there was no more room for the free-roaming pioneer spirit. For a certain type of person, this was the loss of one's very soul.

I found this book to get better and better, as the big picture became clearer. The characters are portrayed as very real, and there are heartbreaking scenes. Yet I was still engrossed in the book, staying up way too late many nights!

This is not an easy book to read, but Stegner is an important American writer, dealing with the West, and this book is well worth the read.