Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Sisters Ruthie  (the book's narrator) and Lucille are the heart of Housekeeping. As very young children, the two were brought by their mother back to her hometown of Fingerbone, Idaho, and left on their grandmother's porch with the admonition to wait for their grandmother. Meanwhile, their mother drove her car over a cliff into a lake, executing a rather spectacular suicide. The girls' grandfather had drowned in the very same lake years ago, the victim of a train derailment. Their grandmother had been left to raise her three daughters alone, and now she has been left to raise her granddaughters.

Ruthie and Lucille are close and their lives are fairly stable until their grandmother dies, leaving them in the care of two maiden great-aunts who are afraid to venture out of the house, making them ill-equipped to care for two young girls. After a year, they hand the girls off to their aunt Sylvie, their mother's sister who has been living the life of a transient. Considering that Sylvie rarely takes her coat off, fills the house with tin cans she saves for no apparent reason, and wanders the countryside by both day and night, her presence does not provide the girls with a sense of security. Indeed, as Ruthie becomes a teenager, she is less and less able to tolerate the "housekeeping" Sylvie practices and seeks shelter with her home ec teacher. Having lost her ally, Ruthie begins to adjust her own habits to Sylvie's; she rarely goes to school and the two behave erratically enough to draw attention from the authorities, who want to remove Ruthie from Sylvie's care. The two leave Fingerbone behind, returning to Sylvie's life on the road.

Housekeeping is a story of loss and impermanence and, because its central characters are children, it's ineffably sad. Robinson's language is formal and the ideas she explores are complex, creating a bit of a disconnect between the age and education level of the narrator and the narration itself--but that disconnect does not really matter. What matters is what Robinson tells us about the human condition in her elegant and beautiful prose.

Housekeeping is a book with an interesting history. Upon its publication in 1980, it received a rave review in the New York Times and was nominated for and/or won various prizes, becoming an instant classic. People waited eagerly for Robinson's second novel, but it was a long wait. She didn't publish Gilead until 2004 but has published two more novels since.

Favorite passages:
We had been assured by our elders that intelligence was a family trait. All my kin and forebears were people of substantial or remarkable intellect, though somehow none of them had prospered in the world. Too bookish, my grandmother said with tart pride, and Lucille and I read constantly to forestall criticism, anticipating failure. If my family were not as intelligent as we were pleased to pretend, this was an innocent deception, for it was a matter of indifference to everybody whether we were intelligent or not.

[E]very memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible — incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares.

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