Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In this lyrical novel, two orphaned girls are raised by a procession of eccentric female relatives in a remote town in the Inland Northwest.
Ruthie and Lucille first end up with their grandmother, then two eccentric maiden great-aunts who prove unequal to the task of raising two young children. They call upon the long-lost Sylvie, the girls' transient aunt; she agrees to raise Ruthie and Lucille in spite of her inclination to wander. Other than a train wreck and a suicide, that's about all that happens in this book. (You think that sounds exciting? It's not.)
Okay, confession: I'm no great fan of a plotless narrative like Housekeeping. I think that Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead is a much stronger book. There, the endless philosophizing descriptions feel more natural (and believable) coming from an older pastor. They make less sense coming from the undereducated Ruthie; plus, the characters in Gilead have a stake in each other's lives, and experience real attachment and love. Gilead feels purposeful; Housekeeping admires the scenery.
The town of Fingerbone seems virtually unpeopled in this story because of Ruthie's utter friendlessness. Aside from her older sister, Lucille, she has no one. Her aunt Sylvie is so often lost in her own thoughts that she could be on another planet. And Lucille, resolute about achieving an ordinary life for herself, soon abandons Ruthie and Sylvie to their weirdness. There is a lot of beauty here, but it feels chilly.
All that said, Robinson's prose deserves to be called 'lapidary' without an ounce of sarcasm, so if you read books primarily to soak in language, this is for you. Each paragraph is a prose poem, only rarely overwritten. (Though a perpetual series of prose poems can get tedious for the rest of us who prefer plot and character interactions.) The descriptions of the Inland Northwest are spot-on, cold lakes and trains figuring most prominently. Fingerbone is modeled on Robinson's hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho.
This book is part of the NEA's Big Read, and I checked it out from the Colorado prison library I work in. We received ten free copies from a program called Words Beyond Bars. For the prison's purposes, I think that Gilead would have been a better choice (how attractive do you think Housekeeping is to an all-male audience that ordinarily enjoys a diet of fast-paced urban fiction and Star Wars books?) I'll be interested to see the reactions of the offenders when we do our book group! Maybe they will surprise me.
"That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting." - 9-10
"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." - 106
"I simply let the darkness in the sky become coexistent with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is an apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable." - 116
"Fingerbone was moved to solemn pity. There was not a soul there but knew how shallow-rooted the whole town was. It flooded yearly, and had burned once." - 177