Separated at Birth

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First things first, Kim Edwards is not a Wunderkind. Yes, her very first novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter (Penguin; 401 pages), has become the literary phenomenon of the summer. Despite its total lack of biblical codes, serial killers or Sudoku, The Memory Keeper's Daughter has just hit No. 1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. "It's a thing you almost don't dream about, because it seems so impossible to have it happen," Edwards says, on the phone from her home in Lexington, Kentucky.

But this is not a story about overnight success. For one thing, Edwards is 48, which pretty much disqualifies her from child prodigy-hood. For another, she was already successful. She's a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and her short stories have garnered her a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award, among many others. She's a professor at the University of Kentucky. Her writing already made her a living. It just hadn't made her famous.

It took a chance encounter with a Presbyterian pastor to do that. A few years ago Edwards' pastor in Lexington happened to tell her a story about a man in his 40s who discovered that he had a brother with Down syndrome whom he'd never met — the brother had died in an institution before the man even learned he existed. That anecdote became the seed of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which begins one snowy night in 1964 with the birth of a pair of twins. One is a healthy boy, Paul, the other is a girl with Down syndrome. The doctor, who is also the father, makes a well-intentioned but fateful decision: he gives his daughter to a nurse with instructions that the baby be taken to an institution, and he tells his wife that the little girl died.

The man's snap decision, a well-intentioned lie calculated to spare his wife unnecessary grief, instead puts a terrible secret at the center of their life together. "He had wanted to spare her," Edwards writes in The Memory Keeper's Daughter, "to protect her from loss and pain; he had not understood that loss would follow her regardless, as persistent and life-shaping as a stream of water. Nor had he anticipated his own grief, woven with the dark threads of his past."

Meanwhile, the nurse, instead of sending the disabled girl away, decides to raise her as her own child. The lives of the two twins unfold separately but in parallel, the one illuminating the other, each illustrating the way a secret meant to set people free can end up trapping them instead.

It took a second chance encounter to start Edwards writing The Memory Keeper's Daughter. She was invited to teach a writing workshop for mentally disabled adults, some of whom had Down syndrome. "I had no idea what to expect," she says. "I had the most wonderful morning. I really enjoyed the group. Some of them didn't write, but they drew. Others wrote wonderful poems. We had a good time. It made a deep impression on me." That day took her back to the story the pastor told her. "I realized that it was perhaps less daunting than I had originally thought, to take on the task of writing a character realistically, who was not sentimentally portrayed, and not patronizingly portrayed, but who had Down's syndrome."

If Edwards isn't an overnight sensation, she isn't a character either. She's serious and straightforward, thoughtful and deliberate. Born in Texas and raised in upstate New York, she spent her entire life planning to be a writer. "When I was very, very young, I just knew that that was something I wanted to do," she says. "Before I could read, my mother will tell stories of how I would just pester her constantly to read to me." When she was in college at Colgate, Edwards studied with Frederick Busch, who became a mentor. After earning her MFA in fiction and an MA in theoretical linguistics, both from the University of Iowa, she and her husband spent five years teaching English in Southeast Asia — Malaysia, Japan, and Cambodia. "It was a time of great learning and great growth and great excitement," she says. "The chatter of everyday life fell away, and it allowed me to listen more fully to the stories I wanted to tell. It also allowed me to take risks that I wouldn't have probably been so likely to take if I felt more immediately a part of a literary community. I just was able to have a tremendous amount of freedom to write as I wished to write."

Edwards published a short story collection, Secrets of the Fire King, in 1997 (it was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway prize) and sold The Memory Keeper's Daughter in 2003. It was a mild success in hardcover — it sold well for literary fiction — but nothing like the phenomenon it's become in paperback. "I've been writing seriously for 20-plus years, and getting a certain level of critical acclaim," she says. "I haven't felt like I've been writing in obscurity, let's say that. I felt like I've had an audience for my work. I've had a wonderful reception for it."

And it's only getting better. If the secret of Kim Edwards wasn't out before, it certainly is now. In fact, secrets are a bit of a theme with Edwards — is there something she needs to get off her chest? "Nothing of this magnitude," she says with a laugh. "Just the usual kinds of secrets one keeps."

—Reported by Andrea Sachs/New York