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Housekeeping: A Novel Paperback – October 14, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle," says Ruthie, the novel's narrator. The same may be said of Becket Royce's subtle, low-keyed reading. The interwoven themes of loss and love, longing and loneliness—"the wanting never subsided"—require a cool, almost impersonal touch. Royce narrates natural and manmade catastrophe and ruin as the author offers them: with a sort of watery vagueness engulfing extraordinary events. Occasionally this leads Royce to sound sleepy or to glide over humor. But she expresses Ruthie's story without any irksome effort to sound childlike, and she avoids the pitfall of dramatizing other characters, such as the awkward sheriff, the whispery insubstantiality of Aunt Sylvie or the ladies bearing casseroles to lure Ruthie away from Aunt Sylvie and into their concept of normality. Originally published in 1980 and filmed in 1987, Housekeeping is finally on audio because of Robinson's new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. The novel holds up remarkably and painfully well, and the language remains searching and sonorous. Anatole Broyard wrote back then: "Here is a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...." And because the author's rhythms, images and diction are so original and dense, this audio is a treasure for listeners who have or haven't read the book. Based on the Picador paperback. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“So precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield.” ―Le Anne Schreiber, The New York Times Book Review
“Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.” ―Anatole Broyard, The New York Times
“I found myself reading slowly, than more slowly--this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.” ―Doris Lessing
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Top Customer Reviews
Read it for the extraordinary calm of reading it.
Complex but beautiful prose. One must read slow, especially the long descriptions. Let Marilynne Robinson teach you how to sense the divine in nature.
The family tale of the grandfather, who had grown up in the East and from childhood became obsessed with mountains and kept moving west until he found them, has cast a shadow over his descendants. Ruthie and Lucille’s mother Helen drove them back to Fingerbone from Seattle, deposited them with their grandmother, then drove off a cliff to her own cold, permanent sleep. Grandmother died, two great aunts came to live with the girls, then retired from the obligation once they had successfully lured the girls’ Aunt Sylvie back to the family home to look after the girls.
Marilynne Robinson appeared on the literary stage in 1980 with her novel ‘Housekeeping’, in my view the most impressive debut since Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’, then disappeared into academia and essay collections for over 20 years until a trilogy of novels, ‘Gilead’, ‘Home’ and Lila’ brought her back into the public consciousness.
The novel is a first person narrative from Ruthie, the older sister, from the vantage point of a few years after the concluding events of this novel. Her introversion and solitary nature seem to have cultivated a vision akin to Emerson, Thoreau and Melville, all of whom are recalled by such a breadth of poetic vision and transcendental wonder.
The grandfather got a job with the railroad and rose up to a supervisory capacity, eventually becoming the stationmaster. On a moonless night, the Fireball was halfway across the bridge “when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”
The time is unspecified but could be anywhere from the 1940’s to the 1950’s. Ruthie and Lucille are solitary orphans, whose primary social contact is each other. Knowing that they were abandoned by an absent father and a suicidal mother, they are sensitized to any upheaval or departure that resembles yet another in a series of abandonments. Sylvie is still married, presumably separated from her husband for some time and has been a transient for the last few years. The girls absorb that information fairly quickly and therefore are alarmed whenever they wake up and she’s gone. Sometimes she merely sleeps outside. Ruthie is ever hopeful: “I was reassured by her sleeping on the lawn, and now and then in the car. It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.”
What becomes the new normal to Ruthie is extremely disturbing to Lucille. When Lucille is absent for a week from school, Sylvie writes an absurd excuse giving the game away immediately. Lucille throws the letter away and the girls simply don’t return to school for the rest of the year. They spy Sylvie wandering by the lake, sometimes climbing up on the fatal bridge and would not be surprised if Sylvie decided to follow the example of her sister and father. They see her sleeping on a bench in the train station with a newspaper over her face. When she discovers that the girls have not been attending school, she refrains from giving them the expected scolding, an occurrence that leaves both girls feeling especially adrift. They spend days out in the woods. As Ruthie says, “I went to the woods for the woods’ own sake, while, increasingly, Lucille seemed to be enduring a banishment there.” A wedge begins to separate the girls as Lucille seeks the company of other girls and eventually goes her own way until finally moving in with a childless teacher. This strengthens the bond between Sylvie and Ruthie and Ruthie becomes reconciled to Sylvie’s lifestyle and begins to adopt it for herself.
Throughout the novel, the water and the train both exert an irresistible magnetic pull. The girls see the divergent paths of following each illustrated in the fates of their mother and their aunt. Lucille exempts herself from making either choice by leaving the home altogether.
Meanwhile, Ruthie learns to appreciate simple beauty from her association with Sylvie. When home they often follow Sylvie’s habit of sitting in the dark, “enjoying the evening”:
‘She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin.”
Ruthie succumbs to Sylvie’s persuasion to get out in a boat on the lake and see the sun come up. Later she agrees to a search for a ruined cabin in the woods where a family once dwelled that is so secluded that the sun doesn’t reach enough of it to thaw it out for spring.
The novel is sprinkled on almost every page with passages of beauty, freshness and wisdom. Becoming reconciled to solitude, Ruthie muses:
‘Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them. You simply say, “Here are the perimeters of our attention. If you prowl around under the windows till the crickets go silent, we will pull the shades. If you wish us to suffer your envious curiosity, you must permit us not to notice it.” Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire.”
Robinson/Ruthie even conjures a unique fresh approach to the Biblical/Christian myth:
‘Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again…Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like.”
In view of an inevitable separation and further splintering of family, Sylvie and Ruthie abandon their housekeeping and, like the misfit Huck Finn, ‘light out for the territory’. Although Robinson has no overt agenda, this is a feminist novel. The men in the family have departed, leaving only women and the women that can’t or won’t conform to the expectations of their society live on its fringes like Sylvie and Ruthie. Has Sylvie gone mad or simply achieved spiritual enlightenment? It hardly matters in view of the fact that she sees the novelty and beauty of the world, even in mundane pleasures such as removing the wrapping from discarded cans, rinsing them and setting them up in a pyramid on the kitchen table, stacks of newspapers “for insulation”, or carrying crackers in her pockets in case she runs into one of those children from the abandoned cabin. Abandoned by community and family, these women have created their own.
It is difficult for me to conceive that Robinson will ever surpass ‘Housekeeping’ for lyrical beauty, originality and breadth of perceptual vision. Each sentence is crafted with a precision and care that Flaubert would have admired. Few novels have so seamlessly woven the buoyancy of joy and the darkness of despair into such a profound meditation on the delicate and transitory nature of Beauty.