Several weeks ago, I started reading Umberto Eco’s dense, hefty medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, which–if/when I finish it, I promise to post on–I quickly realized would prove a challenging read. I’m still somewhat a naif when it comes to reading, so I thought that a slim book lying on my teetering to-be-read pile called Housekeeping would be an easy read to turn to whenever I tired of Eco’s work. After all, Housekeeping spans just over two hundred pages. I believed I’d finish the novel within a few days.
It took me well over a week. Not because I wasn’t enjoying Housekeeping, but the narrative, written by Marilynne Robinson and published in 1980, was far more demanding–and interesting–than I’d thought it would be.
Now that I’ve learned my lesson not to judge a book by its length, I want to share the quiet amazement I had while reading Housekeeping in the hopes that you, too, will dust it off and discover how well Robinson packs in generations of family pain into those two hundred or so pages.
“My name is Ruth,” the narrator of Housekeeping begins; these opening lines have an air of Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” and reveal the simple, if brutal, honesty in this novel’s storytelling style. Ruth, often called Ruthie, and her sister Lucille have an unstable present and face in uncertain future as various relatives try to take care of them in the small and secluded town of Fingerbone, Idaho. Robinson keeps the historical setting vague, adding a haunting quality to Fingerbone and Ruthie’s life.
Ruthie and Lucille have endured many struggles in their family that eventually work their way to the surface of the narrative. Their grandfather’s and mother’s deaths, coupled with their father leaving them, force Ruthie and Lucille to confront the adult world sooner than most children have to. While their aunt Sylvie arrives to take care of them about a third of the way into the story, this doesn’t end up radically improving Ruthie and Lucille’s situation.
Instead, Sylvie’s eccentric behavior attracts unwanted attention from the town, and Sylvie and Lucille silently clash (if that makes sense) on how best to move the family forward, with Ruthie stuck almost helpless in the middle. The last few lines seem to promise an unbreakable cycle tragedy and divide, with Lucille keeping a physical and emotional distance far from her sister and Sylvie.
From start to finish, it’s a pretty bleak story. In addition, as I mentioned, Housekeeping isn’t for casual reading. Often lyrical and poetic, Robinson’s prose gives you, the reader, as much weight and details to descriptions and characters as you could demand. The suicide of Ruthie’s mother after driving off a cliff stood out as a particularly vivid scene. I also found something philosophical about Ruthie’s narration. It was as if each key detail added a biting insight into the dark world around her.
If you’re looking for a happy read, search elsewhere from Housekeeping. But if you’d like to brave a harsh, realistic, and melancholy book with some of the most powerful prose I’ve read this year, Robinson’s novel makes for an intense, even draining experience.
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.
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