Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book 131: Housekeeping

"And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again, or as if she could find the chink, the flaw, in her serenely orderly and ordinary life, or discover at least some intimation that her three girls would disappear as absolutely as their father had done. So when she seemed distracted or absent-minded, it was in fact, I think, that she was aware of too many things, having no principle for selecting the more from the less important, and that her awareness could never be diminished, since it was among the things she had thought of as familiar that this disaster had taken shape." 

Dates read: March 6-10, 2017

Rating: 5/10

Lists/Awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels

My husband has had the most normal life of anyone I know. He was born in North Dakota to two teachers, who moved out to Reno when he was five. They have been happily married for decades, with a wide circle of friends. They even had a Golden Retriever named Max that they adopted from the Humane Society when he was in middle school. Pretty much everything but the white picket fence. Until I met him, I didn't know that people with such conventional lives actually existed. Where was the drama, the scandal, the love child, the secret substance abuse issue?

But, as it so happens, those Norman Rockwell childhoods do exist, and my husband had one of them. It's a decidedly imperfect childhood, though, that's at the center of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Ruth, and her sister Lucille, don't have much if anything in way of memories of their father. They are raised by their mother, Helen, until one day she leaves where she's been living and returns to Fingerbone, Idaho, where she was raised by her own single mother (her father died during her childhood when the train on which he worked derailed into the local lake). She arranges her daughters on her mother's porch with a box of crackers and promptly drives her car off a cliff. The girls have some stability with their grandmother for a time, but then she dies. At first, grandma's two sisters-in-law come to take care of the kids, but as longtime spinsters, they're not quite up to the task. So then Sylvie, their aunt, comes to town. And that's when things start to change.

Sylvie is...a drifter, to be polite. She's actually more of a hobo. She likes the girls, loves them in her own way even, but it's hard for her to create a stable home for them. She can't break out of old habits: riding around in train boxcars, falling asleep with her shoes still on in case she needs to be able to move along, hoarding. While Ruth takes after her aunt, Lucille doesn't. As the girls enter the teenage years, Lucille wants normality. She breaks away from the family, and as she talks about what's going on back home, outside interest increases dramatically. This strains things to the breaking point and forces Ruth to make a decision about who she really is and who she really wants to be.

The more I read, the more I boil books down to three essential elements: plot, characters, and writing. A good book has two, a great book has all three. Robinson's writing is lovely, her prose clear and insightful and strong. But the other two legs of this stool aren't really there. Despite being told from Ruth's perspective, we never get much of a sense of who she really is. Her sister, despite being her closest companion, doesn't get much development either apart from wanting a more conventional life. Even Sylvie is elusive, even though you get a better sense of her than you do almost anyone else. As for the plot...despite being a coming-of-age novel, it seems almost more like a failure-to-come-of-age novel. Ruth never really grows or changes. She just...drifts along, like a leaf along a river. A rootless child, she follows her rootless aunt/guardian. Even her break with her sister, what should have been a deeply traumatic experience, feels anticlimatic and muffled, somehow. Since there was quite a long gap between this book, published in the 80s, and Robinson's next work, Gilead, not published until the early 2000s, I'm still interested in reading more of her works. Maybe that long gap helped her develop a better sense of people or plotting? This book, though, isn't quite good enough to recommend.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been interested in the life of a wanderer?

One year ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winged Histories


  1. I always like your reviews even when I don't want to read the book--as in this case.

    1. Thank you! That's wonderful to hear. And yeah, unless you've got a reason like a book club to read this, it's not something worth adding to list!