Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson - Book Review #11

I fell in love with this book while sitting in the lobby of a hotel at midnight while my family slept peacefully in Room 226. I could not have loved it more had I been reading it on the beach at sunrise.

Housekeeping, written by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), is the story of Ruthie and her mother's sister, Sylvie. Ruthie's mother kills herself when Ruthie and her sister, Lucille, are young children. Ruthie's grandmother raises them for five years and then she dies. Enter Aunt Sylvie, who arrives to take over the rearing of these two girls into their teen years. As with Gilead, the themes are so rich and so deep that everyone will take away something different from their reading. Grief is the most prominent of those themes in Housekeeping, and the story radically portrays what happens when grief remains untouched.

The writing is gorgeous. It is so beautiful that anything else I've read since seems choppy and ugly. Robinson's gift of sentence construction is astonishing. As Doris Lessing said of the novel, "...every sentence is a delight." To tell us that Ruthie's grandmother died, she says, "When after almost five years, my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening,..." And then, to provide insight into the family, Robinson writes, "Then, too, for whatever reasons, our whole family was standoffish. This was the fairest description of our best qualities, and the kindest description of our worst faults." I read the following sentence and melted as I could see the picture of what she was describing so vividly: "If one pried up earth with a stick on those days, one found massed shafts of ice, slender as needles and pure as spring water." And in my final attempt to convince you of her beautiful writing, I share my favorite lines of the entire book:

"We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others and we had lost our sight."

Entwined in the fabulous sentences is a poignant story. Ruthie's grandmother did not grieve the loss of her husband. She simply did not address the death with her children, including Ruthie's mom and Aunt Sylvie. She just went on with life. Ruthie's grandmother did the same thing with her grandchildren when Ruthie's mom drove off a bridge; she just didn't address the death with the children. Aunt Sylvie shows up and because of her unresolved grief, she neglects Ruthie and Lucille in a seriously tragic way. Sylvie feeds, clothes and shelters Lucille and Ruthie. The negligence is of the emotion, the spirit. In Housekeeping, ignored grief leads to mental health issues which lead to neglect of children. The cycle begins again, with some children choosing to get out of the cycle and others finding it most comforting to stay in it.

Because of my place in life, the neglect of children theme was my focus as I read. We all know that neglect of children is bad. And we generally give children credit for being resilient. But how resilient are they, really? Robinson so powerfully shows just how damaging adult self-indulgence is in regard to the nurture and care of children. Ruthie says this about her Aunt Sylvie:

"For she could regard me without strong emotion - a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in their thoughts, with pleasure and animation, even while I sat beside her - this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all."

As good writing always does, it encouraged me to think about the world, my life, my parenting, my children. Why are so many children throughout the world neglected? Where am I negligent in the care of my children? When am I so self-focused that I'm simply seeing them as familiar shapes, familiar faces and, in our house, familiar loud voices? How can I listen so that I am not mistaking important life questions for inconvenient queries? What can I do to parent so that my children don't reach adulthood with Ruthie's conclusion regarding mothers:

"Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise."


  1. We had to study that book for literature and it was the most boring book I have ever read -_-

    1. As a curiosity, could you please cite a few titles you find exciting or thrilling? It might give some contrast for us to understand your use of the catchall phrase "boring."

  2. ^ I agree with that guy...

  3. the book is a world of feeling. i don't know what to say most of the time.

  4. I've read Housekeeping very carefully and I've read many reviews. The analysis that Staci provides here is the most insightful and accurate of any I've read. Some people say the book is about transience or impermanence or finding one's unique way in the world. Still others say it's about the difficulty of life in a suffocating little town. I don't think it's about any of these things. As Staci says, it's about the consequences of failing to provide the love and comfort that children need, particularly when tragedy strikes. Keeping up appearances (housekeeping) isn’t nearly enough. It’s a tough book though because it doesn’t necessarily say these things explicitly. In fact, in order to understand, you really must ask; “What’s missing?” or “What doesn’t the book describe that should be there?” The grandmother’s orderly house, and the clean sheets, and the rosebuds and the appearance of domestic tranquility are all there. What is eerily missing is love, emotional comfort and assistance to children in processing grief. Way to go Staci! :-)