Housekeeping: A Novel

by Marilynne Robinson

Paperback, 2004

Call number




Picador (2004), Edition: Reprint, 219 pages


An unabridged audio edition of this classic work on the 25th anniversary of its first publicationA modern classic, housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town " chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Ever since I read Robinson's Home and Gilead I've been holding this one, her first novel, in reserve for just the right time. I don't know how I knew, but the right time came last week. What a beautifully written book; sentence after sentence perfectly wrought, and the point of view so clear that you would swear this was almost pure autobiography. (A quick scan of her Wikipedia bio will attest that it is not.)

The story begins when two young sisters, Ruth (the narrator) and Lucille, are left on their grandmother’s porch on a Sunday morning, with a box of graham crackers for sustenance, instructed by their mother to “wait quietly”. Having never met their grandmother, they did just that, while their mother used the borrowed car they had arrived in to drive off a cliff into the glacial lake north of town. Into this same lake their grandfather, many years before, had disappeared when the train he was traveling in nosed off a bridge and “slid into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock”. The lake is an incredible presence in this novel, emanating sounds and smells, flooding and receding, holding in its depths the very secrets of life and death.

When their grandmother dies (of simple natural causes), Ruth and Lucille come under the care of their aunt, Sylvie, a former "transient" (most people would say hobo) who moves in with them in the house where she herself grew up. Sylvie is used to living outdoors, eating whatever there is to be had, and seems to be most comfortable alone in utter darkness. She is drawn to the lake and to the trains that pass through the town of Fingerbone. Once again the pattern of their lives alters drastically for Ruth and her sister; school becomes optional, meals irregular, housekeeping consists of stacking empty cans along the walls of the parlor and piling newspapers and magazines to the ceiling, as Sylvie viewed the “hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift”. Eventually, inevitably, the community and the authorities take an intense interest in Ruth’s welfare. Equally inevitably, as will be obvious to anyone who has read Huckleberry Finn, civilization must lose the ensuing contest.

The sheer poetry of the writing in Housekeeping transcends the relative simplicity of the story line. Subtly, without ever becoming ponderous, layer upon layer of metaphor fill the pages. The elements ---water, darkness, wind—are always at play; the world of dreams and death encroaches on reality in a thoroughly non-threatening way. I will not get this book out of my mind for a long time. And when I do, I will read it again.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
Marilynne Robinson's first novel explores the boundaries of family, loss, connection, transience, meaning, and memory. What? All that in just over 200 pages? Well, yes, and she does so beautifully. Ruthie and Lucille are sisters who grow up in an isolated town in the far west (late in the book, we decide they are in Idaho), the last descendants in a family storied by suicide and other dramatic forms of death. Orphaned, they are raised first by their grandmother, then by two comic maiden aunts, and finally by their own aunt, Sylvie, who leaves her independent life on the rails to take up housekeeping with them. That transient life is not so easily left behind, though; Ruth and Lucille each respond to Sylvie's rootlessness in her own way, providing the narrative arc for Robinson's exquisite novel. In the end, Ruth tells us that Sylvie "...cast about constantly for ways to conform our lives to the expectations of others, or to what she guessed their expectations might be, and she was full of purpose, which sometimes seemed like hope." Her success, of course, is less than complete.

Robinson's novel is also about the experience of being on the outside looking in (she repeatedly uses the image of a person looking into or out of a window from the lit side, noting how one only sees one's reflection from that perspective, and is left to imagine what is on the other side), and the assumptions we make about those who live solitary lives outside the apparent security of family, town, and society. Truly, our projection of loneliness and discomfort may bely our own fear of loss and disconnection; our compassionate or pitying provision of staples a way to buffer ourselves from terror. "Why should they all feel judgment in the fact that these nameless souls looked into their lighted windows without envy and took the best of suppers as no more than their meager due?" And, of course, there is the notion that all our lives are transient, regardless of how rooted we believe them to be. "That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind."

This novel is poetry in prose form. And, as is true (for me) with most poetry, I know I missed much of it. Still, I savored and got completely lost in the language and the story. Housekeeping falls just barely short enough of perfect to miss the full five stars of my rating scheme.
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
Two little girls were left tied to a porch, eating graham crackers, to wait for their grandmother’s return home while their mother drove herself into a glacial lake and drowned. From then on, these sisters are cared for by family members in very unusual manners and they learn how differently they are affected by their experiences.

Issues of shared family ties, sociability, permanence, conformity, and mental stability create two very different young women who fulfill two very different sets of need. How are they each affected by loss? What are their breaking points? How do they perceive their pasts and futures? What is the end result?

Reading this book took some time and occasional re-reading of passages to understand. Robinson sets a vivid scene, tells a story, and contemplates the workings of the mind. Water and the lake play major roles in this book. You’ll feel wet and cold much of the time – and you’ll feel the warmth of a heavy coat, too big, but still warm from the woman who shares it. As well as physical warmth, you will seek mental comfort…

“What is thought, after all, what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate? The images are the worst of it. It would be terrible to stand outside in the dark and watch a woman in a lighted room studying her face in a window, and to throw a stone at her, shattering the glass, and then to watch the window knit itself up again and the bright bits of lip and throat and hair piece themselves seamlessly again into that unknown, indifferent woman. It would be terrible to see a shattered mirror heal to show a dreaming woman tucking up her hair. And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement.”

An interesting and thoughtful read, I was somewhat surprised by the ending. For me, it was perfect.

Excellent read. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member LukeS
In "Housekeeping" Marilynne Robinson establishes herself as the very best of living American authors. This novel perches on the fraught balance between living and dead, drowning and flying, orthodox and outcast.

In a lonely town in the Far West, where "the history of the world happened elsewhere," there is a house owned by Sylvie and Ruth's family. Sylvie is Ruth's aunt and is very little more than a drifter. Lucille is Ruth's younger sister and she occupies the house. This remote town sits on the shore of Lake Fingerbone, a deep and dark expanse of water that has claimed, in circumstances dark or disastrous or both, the lives of some of Ruth's forebears, including her mother. Sylvie comes back to the house with Ruth, but has no intention of staying. In one of the book's very significant episodes she and Ruth try to traverse the railroad track that spans the lake, and although this attempt fails, we know where Sylvie's heart, and eventually Ruth's too, lie. They want to traverse Fingerbone (to abjure working their fingers to the bone, as it were), take to the road, and see what tomorrow brings. They ultimately do not want the anchor of the house. Lucille, the orthodox member of the family, cannot understand the impulse, and is completely willing to settle down and make a go of things. Every feeling we get from this character is that she will succeed at it.

This was my introduction to Ms. Robinson, and I was completely stunned, awestruck. Her striking gift with words is well-known (see "Gilead" and "Home" and assorted non-fiction), but it's her gift with the larger issues in her stories that sweeps me away here. She poses an age-old question: how do you measure success in life? Are our hopes for material success doomed endlessly? Is an orthodox career through life as heavy as a lake, as suffocating as a bottomless body of water?

This is one of the best books I have ever read, or will ever read. Ms. Robinson fills me with wonder at her conception and her execution. Read it for the thrill of having a classic in the author's lifetime.
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LibraryThing member semckibbin
Housekeeping is a marvelous little ghost story, or more exactly, the story of how our narrator, Ruthie Stone, becomes a little ghost. Robinson goes about making Ruthie a ghost in three ways: Isolation, habit, and fear of the “other world”.

Isolation. Robinson throws our narrator, Ruthie, into geographically isolated Fingerbone on the far side of a large lake---perhaps on the shore of Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille which also is crossed by a long railroad bridge. Robinson then ruthlessly purges Ruthie’s immediate family by either abandonment (father, Lily and Nona) or death (grandmother, mother). Ruthie compounds her own isolation when she states, “We had never really had any use for friends ....” Astonishing---having no use for friends and Robinson’s use of the extra ‘had’. Robinson’s last sadistic separation comes when her sister, Lucille, abandons Ruthie for the “other world” and leaves Ruthie alone in the house with crazyass Aunt Sylvie.

Habit. When Sylvie arrives she is already a ghost and she becomes Ruthie’s mentor, teaching her how to get along without work, purpose, food, money, sex or even being warm and dry. The lake also helps teach Ruthie these habits, as Robinson makes the lake a character and has it move into the house a week after Sylvie.

Fear of the “other world”. The “other world” is the normal world other Fingerboners live in. The “other world” took Lucille! It is going to break up my “family”! The ghostly drift is accelerated by Robinson’s cunning intrusion of “the other world” into her fairy tale: there are people at school inquiring, they are looking on from the orchard’s edge, now they are peering in at the windows, someone is on the porch and already knocking at the door: and by the time the neighborhood’s elderly ladies are sitting in the living room observing the cats and cans and stacks of periodicals, our little ghost can only react by setting fire to the house and vanishing. (Incidental note: I propose the Simplified Robinson Rule as a test of a person’s sanity: If the number of semi-feral animals pooping in your house exceeds one, we should call for the police. Really, the only good place for a cat is in a barn.)

Along the way to dispensing full-fledged ghostification, Robinson gets to have some philosophic fun; for only a ghost can take seriously the Platonic claim that we remember things from before we are born; or take seriously the useless Cartesian appearance-reality dualism; and find Cartesian skepticism as not skepticism at all but simply common (ghost) sense.

Robinson’s themes stick in your head: the dogs, the windows, the railroad, the vortex, the ice, the cold---always the cold. Ruthie’s encounters with the lake yield the most poetic prose, like the following which is as beautiful as the lake, and connects the lake to Ruthie’s house:

Only out beyond these two reaches of land could we see the shimmer of open lake. The sheltered water between them was glossy, dark, and rank, with cattails at its verge and water lilies in its shadows, and tadpoles, and minnows, and farther out, the plosh now and then of a big fish leaping after flies. Set apart from the drifts and tides and lucifactions of the open water, the surface of the bay seemed almost viscous, membranous, and here things massed and accumulated, as they do in cobwebs or in the eaves and unswept corners of a house. It was a place of distinctly domestic disorder, warm and still and replete.

Robinson’s one artistic misstep was the inexplicable injection of Cain, Rachel, Job and Absalom into the narrative. I am positive they were wondering what they were doing there too. And I have one meta-structural quibble: Why would a ghost---or drifter, if you will---write this story?

In sum, good structure, often beautiful prose. Robinson writes with intelligence, although I would welcome it if she cracked a joke at least every hundred pages or so.
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LibraryThing member mdoris
I finished Housekeeping last night. I have read Marilynne Robinson's other fiction books (which I have loved) so I thought I would give this one a whirl. Many years ago we had seen the movie ( made from the book) and I remember thinking it was quirky and interesting. So I looked up the DVD in the library today and it is listed under the "comedy" section. Wow! Now that was a big surprise to me as I did not find this book funny or written with humourous intent at all. I found it moving, sad, and tragic. I found some of the writing heavy going and a little impentetrable and other writing perfect so that I wanted to use a highlighter marker on passages and sentences that were expressed so well. Would I read another of her books? Yes, in a heartbeat. She seems to see inside human beings.… (more)
LibraryThing member stillatim
I have a real desire to love Marilynne Robinson. She takes literature seriously; she takes thinking seriously; she's a little defensive about how seriously she takes these things. She doesn't churn out novel after novel after novel, implying that she actually thinks about what she's writing. She's hyper-intellectual and the prose of her essays is very, very effective.
But this? This is not, Mr/s Blurb Writer, a modern classic and it does not, Paul Gray (Time Magazine) "brilliantly portray the impermanence of all things." It's intellectually ambitious, sure, but just as with Gilead, I feel like the characters, the ideas, the prose and myself are all keeping each other at arm's length. Here we have the typical 'smart' writer's dilemma of having an uneducated, quiet and unsocial character as narrator of a hyper-intellectual, language-loving and garrulous narrative. We have the common problem of intriguing literary symbolism (small town on lake/many drownings/ties to Noah's Ark, memory and human community) slowly but surely becoming child-like metaphysics, which might be nice sometimes, but, when treated with this much gravity ("It had never occurred to me that words, too, must be salvaged... it was absurd to think that things were held in place, are held in place, by a web of words"), is particularly tiresome. We have strunk'n'whitean simplicity masquerading as genius.

Now all that said, it's impressive and I love the ambition. This is a review of my re-reading, and I intend to re-read Gilead (which I remember being a little less adolescent-girl-with-camera metaphysically frou-frou than this one, thank the Lord) and finally get around to reading Home (which I am hoping continues Gilead's trend towards a more social-religious focus). But I have a hunch that when we finally move on from the deification of MFA programs, this will be the kind of thing that's re-discovered every few decades, rather than taken as definitive for its time. The alternative, I guess, is that we keep deifying MFA programs, this stays in endless print, but nobody outside of universities reads anything other than Maxim and Cosmo.

Addendum: it can't have helped that I read half of this before, and half after, Powers' Morte D'Urban, which similarly treats the theme of worldliness/unworldliness, and is similarly ambiguous about the relative merits of these traits, but does so with much humor and lightness of touch. It seems weird to say, but Robinson's book might well strike me as more successful if I was comparing it to Dostoevsky, for instance, than Powers.
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LibraryThing member lisapeet
I found this beautiful, and perfect for me this dark month. So much death in my life right now, I couldn't help be moved by this tale of watery transubstantiation, need, loss, and love where love finds itself. A library book, but I think something I'll end up buying just to dip in and out when the spirit moves me.

I'm a bit surprised I didn't encounter this book when it first came out 40 years ago, and glad I didn't. I wouldn't have been a good reader for it, either literarily or experientially. It's a good mid/late life book, I think, when your edges have been worn off a bit.… (more)
LibraryThing member JenJ.
Ok - here's the thing - the writing in this book was beautiful, but I just didn't connect to it that much. The whole book felt detached and gray to me.
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Sisters Ruth and Lucille are dropped off at their grandmother's house just before their mother drives a car off a cliff into the lake. Ruth and Lucille stay in the house, first with their grandmother, then a couple of great aunts, then their mother's sister Sylvie. Sylvie is eccentric. She cares about Ruth and Lucille, but she is unconcerned with conventions. Eventually their idiosyncratic behavior brings unwanted attention from community leaders.

Ruth narrates the story, which is much more than an account of what happened to her family. She has a philosopher's soul, and she makes observations about weighty things like boundaries, transience, being on the outside looking in versus being on the inside looking out, loneliness, death, the meaning of family, and the relationship between humans and the landscape. I listened to the audio version read by Becket Royce. At first I thought she spoke too fast, but I soon adjusted to her cadence. At some point, the narrator became Ruth, and the words flowed as effortlessly as thought.
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LibraryThing member TiffanyAK
This book takes a fair bit of patience to read. It is maximalist in the extreme. What this means is that, in effect, there is a great deal of writing that sounds utterly poetic and beautiful, while there is also a large bit more writing than is strictly necessary to describe people and events. As a result, it can feel exceedingly tedious at times. Yet, some people might also find it very appealing. Personally, it was hit or miss for me throughout the book.

The story is also, in a word, odd. It is definitely not light and easy reading, but it does lend itself to a great deal of discussion and analysis, and will definitely cause every reader to have some strong opinions and reactions. Not necessarily positive ones, but opinions and reactions just the same.
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LibraryThing member emily_morine
I know it's not fair, that it goes against every rule of responsible writing on books and literature, to evaluate a novel based on the author's other works. How much less fair to evaluate a first novel on the merits of an author's subsequent works, when one has chosen to read them out of order? Totally, completely unfair. Nevertheless, I can't honestly talk about my reaction to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping without getting this out of my system: gorgeous, limpidly written it may be, but it's no Gilead.

Nor is it supposed to be, after all. Whereas Robinson's second novel, published twenty-four years after her first, is an intimate, perfectly-pitched character study of a man at the end of his life, looking back with mellow pain and pleasure at the family legacy he is leaving to his young son, her earlier work features a pair of sisters who were given no such guiding light by their parents. What touched me so deeply about Gilead, what puts it on my top-twenty list of all time, is the tangible, rooted reality of the Reverend John Ames. But Housekeeping is not about age, and it's not about the tangible. Instead it's about the transient, and loss, and the brittle no-man's-land of an adolescence saturated in death. Although both novels are written in the first person, the voice of Housekeeping's protagonist Ruthie is distant, almost cold, functioning always at a remove from the reader, which is a stark contrast from Ames's intimate warmth. Ruthie's distance makes sense within the novel: abandoned by their suicidal mother at a young age, she and her sister Lucille are raised by a series of relatives, ending up finally in an uneasy guardian/ward relationship with their formerly-transient aunt Sylvie, who they expect, both because of their own history and her character, to abandon them at any moment. As the three women drift forward in time, Lucille makes a conscious decision to leave Sylvie and rejoin "normal" society, whereas Ruthie is more torn.

If I were to pick one adjective to describe this book, it might be "haunted." All three main characters seem beset: sometimes by fading memories, sometimes by nagging desires, sometimes by a nameless lack they can't place. This doesn't come across as teenage ennui, but rather as the result of an early life divorced from security, with no fixed "place" any character can call her own and no fixed path to which Ruthie, at least, feels dedicated. One of the most poignant questions I heard the book asking was whether one ought to seek aggressively for that missing sense of rooted place, or whether, on the contrary, it is better to become comfortable with the essential rootlessness of life. A recurring image, of being on either side of a lighted window in the night-time, was both one of the most charged and one of the most beautiful metaphors in this gorgeously-written book.

Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers. [...] [B]y crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roofs and sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face. She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat. The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout. When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her shadow sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge.

Again and again, Robinson presents the interior lighted spaces as those of the "haves" and belonging, and the dark exterior spaces as those of the "have-nots," the transients on the periphery of so-called respectable life. Sylvie, who loves to sit in the dusky interior of her mother's house without turning on the lights, relishes the blurring of boundaries, the melding of dark interior with dark exterior, the "even-ing" time when possession status is unclear and a house's interior can be "sunk in the very element is was meant to exclude." Lucille, on the other hand, seeks to build up more and ever more clarity of boundaries, wanting the lights to blaze against the darkness so that she will be reassured about which side of the divide she occupies. Sylvie's drifting, unmoored character is unnerving, even offensive to her.

I knew what the silence meant, and so did Lucille. It meant that on an evening so calm, so iridescently blue, so full of the chink and chafe of insects and fat old dogs dragging their chains and belling in the neighbors' dooryards—in such a boundless and luminous evening, we would feel our proximity with our finer senses. As, for example, one of two, lying still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake.

       We sat listening to the rasp of the knife as Sylvie buttered and stacked the toast, bumping our heels with a soft, slow rhythm against the legs of our chairs, staring through the warped and bubbled window at the brighter darkness. Then Lucille began to scratch fiercely at her arms and her knees. "I must have got into something," she said, and she stood up and pulled the chain of the overhead light. The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness.

All of this is what is compelling about Housekeeping: its gorgeously-formed prose, its thoughtful metaphors, its tone which fits so well to the otherworldly characters of Sylvie and Ruthie. So why doesn't it live up to my expectations, brilliant as it often is?

For me, although Robinson had obviously already honed her writing chops on the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the larger narrative in Housekeeping seems a bit loose, a bit wandering. All that skilled craft seems like liquid without a container, running this way and that over any surface it encounters, in need of some kind of funnel or chute to concentrate it into a sustained narrative. Had it been more concentrated, more directed, the characters and town might have sprung more to life, and I would have believed more fully in their existence. It occurs to me that this could have been intentional: theoretically, a thinner, more wandering narrative style is a great fit for Robinson's themes of vagrancy, liminal spaces, and existential uncertainty. The book itself is waif-like, haunted, hard to pin down, like Sylvie in her rootless wanderings, like Ruthie in her attempts to see without being seen. It's a dweller in the dark exterior, not in the blazing interior. In practice, though, I didn't think the treatment lived up to its potential, and my whole time reading this I was torn between marveling at the beautiful prose and asking myself why I wasn't more caught up, more involved.

I know I've done a poor job at evaluating Housekeeping on its own merits, and I feel vaguely guilty about that. There were flashes of the grounded, wry, tightly yet seemingly effortlessly-controlled brilliance of Gilead: I caught a whiff, for example, of Ames's quiet, biblically-inflected sense of humor when Ruthie imagines her grandmother returning from the dead to "scan the shores to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho." Overall I was, perhaps unreasonably, disappointed, and now feel a little bit sad that I've read all three of Robinson's novels to date. To assuage those feelings of sadness, here is one last paragraph to speed me on my way.

Of course I knew that [the sheriff's] function was more than ceremonial. The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.
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LibraryThing member idyll
I love books where nothing is wasted. This is a quiet book, unambitious in scope, but brilliantly written. It's a women-centered coming of age book. The title alone is worth an essay. The author takes a few strong images: trains, water, houses, etc. and weaves them together into a tight, sometimes devastating package. The morally ambiguous character of Sylvie is especially unforgettable.… (more)
LibraryThing member kalliope
This book is not for everyone due to its slow-moving plot and meandering style, but I loved it. It's the sort of book that doesn't necessarily compel you to read it when you're not, but while you are, you're completely swept up in its language and its world, and it's difficult to put down.

It's a quietly and deeply sad book, but not in a loud or horribly tragic way. Robinson uses the power of place, atmosphere, and weather to brilliantly conjure the mood. The sometimes intensely poetic prose requires your attention, and much would be lost by rushing through it. Take your time and savor it.… (more)
LibraryThing member asxz
Just couldn't love it. Much of what happens remains opaque to me. Shame, I thought it was going to be a lost classic, but it was hard going and not especially rewarding.
LibraryThing member ben_a
An amazing an uncanny book. The events are commonplace, but the prose is miraculous -- like finding the hope diamond in a rain puddle.
LibraryThing member djalchemi
I read this because I loved the film so much, 20+ years ago. Lots of very lyrical passages, and some interesting repeating themes. Many times people are observed inside lighted buildings at night -- and in one case a lighted train -- and conversely the people inside see only their reflections in the windows. It's a gentle meditation on the life of transients (i.e. drifters) which could also be read in terms of life as transience. But I missed the unique warmth that director Bill Forsyth gave to the principal characters in the film version.… (more)
LibraryThing member dmturner
This story of a series of lost souls in a family is meditative, brilliant, lucid, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. It's the kind of book I read with pen in hand, underlining passages that I would love to tattoo in a spiral on my arm, knowing as I read that I will re-read and memorize parts later on.

The author was studying American literature in her PhD program and, while she was doing it, practiced writing down metaphors that were like those in the writing of authors such as Emerson. When she finished her degree, she looked at her stack of metaphors and realized they contained much more. Housekeeping was the result. After this book, though she wrote nonfiction and taught writing, there was a hiatus of twenty four years before she wrote fiction again.

It's the story of two close sisters raised by a series of relatives in a tiny house in the lake town of Fingerbone. Like The Monsters of Templeton, the lake is a numinous symbol with much buried in it, including an entire train that was carrying the girls' grandfather on it--and perhaps many hobos riding the rails. The sisters, at first inseparable, are gradually drawn into two different ways of making a life, two different ways of keeping a house, and two different ways of experiencing the world.

Like all good books I have loved, it seduces the reader into identifying with those who transgress and wander, rather than those who understand exactly how the world works and how to turn it.
I picked the book up because I had listened to the author's Lila, which is one of her much later books about Gilead. Lila is a more sophisticated book, both rawer and more polished, and parts of Housekeeping, despite its crystalline and evocative language, feel like the harsher sort of fairy tale. However, this book is imbued with many of the same preoccupations - resurrection, memory, love, family - as the later books.
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LibraryThing member claritas
I read this twice in two days; it's lovely; it's set in an Idaho town in the mountains and by a lake, unfathomably deep, which drowned grandfather (in a derailment) and mother (in a suicide). Both the town and the lake are called Fingerbone. Overpassing the lake are both a bridge and train tracks along the bridge. Ruth, who narrates, and Lucille, who's a year younger, are sisters; the book begins: "My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher." This opening indicates at the outset the shapeliness and equipoise of Robinson's sentences and, in omitting Helen--suicide and mother who cared for the girls longer and earlier than grandmother, great-aunts-in-law, or aunt--does not mislead.

Water and air are everywhere. I mean both the elements--in Fingerbone--and the words--in the text. But of course they're everywhere anyway; people everywhere breathe air and drink water or they're dead. Light illuminates, too--Fingerbone--and how--and darkness enwraps; they're opposites; one or the other always obtains because physics. But water and air don't have opposites other than their absence, and they are never absent, not in Fingerbone.

Cold too is everywhere because geography--latitude, altitude, lake--but Sylvie is impervious. Characters ask her again and again isn't she cold and she never is. Yet at the same time she always is: her imperviousness is not only to physical cold but also to emotional currents. Though she can be pleased and can laugh.

She answers questions in letter but not spirit, technically logical but short of the point. "'Why are we staying here, Sylvie?' I asked." Here: in a boat under the bridge on the lake in the dark in the cold. "'Waiting for the train,' she said. If I had asked why we were waiting for the train she would have said, To see it, or she would have said, Why not, or, Since we are here anyway, we might as well watch it go by."

There is a remoteness, too, to Ruth's narration. We hardly notice it, because it is of a piece with Robinson's prose style and Fingerbone's natural disposition: all that water, air, cold, light, and dark.

These; and the bridge, the train, the lake: they loom. But Fingerbone--if a town is its people more than its natural disposition--is absent. Not even disregarded, simply unregarded, until the end, when it intrudes. Sylvie and Ruth and at first Lucille are insular and self-sufficient in their house on a hill on the edge of town set back from the main road. Lucille rebels midway through.

She tries to take Ruth with her; but Ruth is Sylvie's, in the end. Before that, though: "Sylvie did not want to lose me," Ruth reflects. "She did not wish to remember me. She much preferred my simple, ordinary presence"; "if she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing."

This is a lesson Lucille learns well; the book's last paragraph is a string of negatives that both affirm and deny. "No one watching this woman"--Lucille, the last sentence--"could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie." It is by their abandonment and absence, as much as by their clumsiness or cruelty, that family come to loom so large, and cast such long shadows.
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LibraryThing member poetreehugger
This book is cold. It is sometimes wet. There are old newspapers blowing around, and piles of wet and decomposing leaves all over the place. So make yourself a cup of tea and wait for a cloudy day to read this book, because it is not a cheerful, whistling kind of book.
I did not enjoy the story, because it deals with the sad and dark states of the human mind. I gave it a 'four' because the writing itself is beautiful, with a grand evocative use of words which are satisfying to read even as the plot is not… (more)
LibraryThing member bell7
Our narrator, Ruth, and her sister Lucille have been abandoned by many in their lives. The first to leave them was their mother, who dropped them off at their grandmother's house, and drove into the same lake that claimed her father and a whole train full of people many years ago.

It's hard to explain what this story is about since there is very little in terms of plot. These are Ruth's often poetic reflections on living, loss, abandonment, and loneliness. It is atmospheric and melancholy. The lake itself has a presence as strong as any character. The writing is superb, but you have to have the patience (and I admit I often do not) for a slow unfolding and revealing of character rather than a conventional storyline. If you do, however, you're sure to be rewarded.… (more)
LibraryThing member juniperSun
Recommended to me by a friend. I can see why she did so--matches my housekeeping style :)
At first this reminded me of Alice Hoffman books, which I enjoy, but this was much more a tale made of thoughts than of actions. By mid-book I was bothered by such philosophical ponderings by a supposedly young girl. Yes, this tale is told by her older self, but with continuously (I feel) projected interpretations of what she must have felt. Or maybe a 10(?) year old really wonders about life and death. Could be, her mother abandoned her with family, her grandma dies, her great-aunts can't deal with raising children, her aunt is continually perched on the verge of leaving. I forced myself to finish, but didn't enjoy it tho I did note some interesting quotes to save, e.g. thoughts about transience/homelessness vs the homebound mundane.
The writing is very poetical, if you are the kind of person who can slow down enough to savor every sentence.
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LibraryThing member ametralladoras
In the past week since I've finished this book I've changed my rating from a 3 to a 4 and finally to a 5. The more I think about this book the more beautiful and intricate it becomes to me. I want to reread it already to pick up on the subtle yet stunning use of symbolism Robinson uses in this book. I'm reading this book for an English class and currently writing a paper about the symbolic use of windows in the novel. Normally in situations like this I end up resenting the book as a result of forced work, but surprisingly I have just been falling more and more in love with it.… (more)
LibraryThing member cebellol
This is the kind of book that high school English teachers and maybe even some college professors like to make their students read, or rather over-read. The supposed symbolism in here is never ending, the most obvious of which being "What does the lake represent?". I was fortunate enough that I did not have to read this for class, and therefore could attempt to enjoy it. Notice, I say "attempt". My teachers and professors of yesteryear kept creeping into my head when I would read over a section whispering, even shouting in my head, "What does it mean? What does it symbolize?".

I couldn't get into, no matter how much I tried. I picked it up because it was on a list of 30 or so books college students should read, once graduated, to help them realize or even combat different feelings that would become more pronounced when they leave school; this one was on loneliness. As I was quite lonely through out my senior year due to numerous factors including a difficult Div 1 competition schedule and since hanging out with anyone I was close to up there now requires weeks of planning now that we aren't a few apartments away, I figured I'd try it. Let me tell you. It does not help. I've gotten past my loneliness, but it had nothing to do with this book. If anything, loneliness is only emphasized, perhaps even glorified. I can't quite explain it.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend this book. The characters can lead to aggravation, at best and I just feel as though there's not enough to it. Again, I'm not sure how to explain it. I only know that it feels like it's missing something.
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LibraryThing member jennyo
I really wanted to love this book. Robinson's Gilead is one of my favorite books ever, so I had very high hopes for this one. And it is beautiful. Like Gilead, it's full of exquisite sentences that you need to reread in order to gather every nuance. So, why didn't I like it as much? I think a couple of reasons. First of all, I think you have to be in the mood for a quiet, thoughtful book like this, and I wasn't really. I was too scattered and couldn't focus on it properly. But the biggest reason I think was because this book is so sad. So incredibly, deeply sad. It made my heart hurt just to read it.

So, if you pressed me for a rating on this book, I'd give it a hesitant 4 of 5 stars. If I read it at another time, maybe I'd give it the full 5. Without a doubt, Robinson is a gifted writer. And I'm tempted to give the book another chance someday just because I can see how lovely the prose is. But, honestly? I can't see myself doing it. I just can't.

Quotes that are going in my journal:

(p. 21) She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them.

(p. 166) That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind.

(pp. 182-183) There were, in fact, several churches whose visions of sin and salvation were so ecstatic, and so nearly identical, that the superiority of one church over another could be argued only in terms of good works. And the obligation to perform these works rested squarely with the women, since salvation was universally considered to be much more becoming in women than in men.

(pp. 194-195) There is so little to remember of anyone--an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

You see what I mean? Perfect sentences that pierce your very heart. I hope I can find someone to share this with who will give it its due. I think it's a book that deserves a devoted reader.
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