I’ve been looking forward to reading Housekeeping for a long time, but I’ve held off reading it because it was a rare jewel, one that couldn’t be replaced anytime soon.
Marilynne Robinson doesn’t write novels very often. But when she does, the world takes notice. Her first novel, Housekeeping, earned her a Pen/Hemingway Award, and her second, Gilead, won the Pulitzer. I reviewed her most recent book, Home, and you can read my thoughts on it here. Home was a finalist for the National Book Award, which is a pretty decent award as well.
Housekeeping was published in 1980, and the world had to wait 24 years for her next book. But maybe it takes that long to write a book that wins the Pulitzer. Thankfully, Home came along only four years later, because I’m not sure I could hold out another quarter century.
Housekeeping is a deceptively short book. Of course, I forgot my own statement: “Even though they are very short books, they’ll likely take you longer than most Victorian novels to read.” And I picked it up a couple days before my book group met to discuss it. At 219 pages, with such a “domestic” topic, it looks lightweight. But that’s part of Robinson’s charm. She takes what is simple and makes it complex. She shows you the depth of everyday things, the complexity and the sacredness of the ordinary.
The plot is very simple. Two orphaned girls live with their grandmother, until their grandmother dies. Two elderly, spinster great aunts take up housekeeping to watch over the girls, but then leave the girls under the care of their aunt (their mother’s sister), who is mentally unbalanced and a transient.
At its most basic level, the story is about different women, taking care of a home, and what it means to live in a place and “keep up appearances.” But of course, with Robinson, the story is about so much more. Housekeeping is about memory, about coping, about sanity, and sanctity.
The Biblical allusions are brief, but they also offer some of the most powerful metaphors in the story. Robinson teases us with deep theological questions, rooted in everyday circumstances. Read the book quickly, skim, and you miss these profound inquires.
The language also sets the book apart from many others. Each sentence is carefully crafted, as is the case with all her books, so as to seem almost poetic and very purposeful. And when the characters are struggling with sanity, the style mirrors their mental shifts as well.
So even though I’m sad to have completed all of Robinson’s novels, I’m excited to pick them up again and find all the hidden treasures that I missed the first time through. I’ve found that each reading brings out many new insights, the hallmark of a book with a lot of rewards to offer.
If I recommend any books that you’d like to purchase, consider buying them through Amazon using the links on my site, so I get a percentage of the purchase price back to buy more books to review!