Have you heard my rant yet about books in which nothing happens? It's a classic problem with literary fiction. Sometimes it's so bad that even when things are happening it feels like nothing happens. A lot of these books are about young people coming of age or marriages slowly falling to pieces. It's a lot of carefully observed everday moments strung in a row for me to find "meaning" in.
Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm kind of an idiot. I watched the movie The Hours and didn't realize it was about depression until someone pointed it out to me. (In my defense, I blame Meryl Streep for blinding me with her forced cheerfulness.) I'm not the first one to catch onto subtle themes. I need things pointed out to me--it doesn't have to be heavy-handed, but it has to be there.
This book, though, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, is the absolute worst of both worlds. The setup, the idea, is so promising in terms of things happening. A doctor delivers his own children on a stormy night. The girl has Down's Syndrome. It's the 60s, people are ignorant, chances are she'll have health problems. He asks the nurse to take her to an institution, then tells his wife (when she wakes from the anasthesia) that they have a son but their daughter dies. The nurse, instead of sending the kid away, leaves town with her and rears the girl as her own.
Wow! Ripe with possibility! First of all, there's the single mother bringing up a disabled child in the sixties. That's got to be tough--lots of interesting things to learn there. There's the idea of being someone on the run, that there might be someone looking for you. There's the doctor keeping a secret from his family. Maybe searching for them. Conflict and high passion.
What a dull, flat book. The whole book is about the doctor keeping the secret from his wife, and how it makes him emotionally unavailable. Really, the whole movie is about a couple in a marriage where the husband is emotionally unavailable. That's all I'll grant the damned thing credit for even TRYING to do. Phoebe, the daughter, appears so far in about three scenes (though her mother has lots of scenes, mostly about being haunted by the memory and idea of this doctor). This is a book about a marriage falling apart. It's a book about people who don't talk to each other. It's a book full of painful silences.
Unfortunately, it is exactly what it's trying to be: a successful "literary" novel.