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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The writing is gorgeous and lyrical. The characters are interesting; no, they are downright odd. The plot is deceptive, dark, and disturbing. And yet, I never became emotionally invested in the novel. This book is highly acclaimed by many people with similar reading tastes, so I can only conclude it was a case of "right book, wrong time." Perhaps I just couldn't give it the concentration it deserved.
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.
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.