A couple months ago, Avery and a few of our book-nerdy friends roped me into doing a book group with them. Ian and Seth had already read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson for a class they took a while back, but they wanted to go through it again with us. It’s not a book I would have readily picked up on my own, but I’m grateful our little book group got me out of my comfort zone.
The sheer brilliance of this book is more than I can comprehend. It’s books like this that make me believe truly great literature—or any great art—cannot be created by humankind without the aid of divine inspiration. I have no other explanation for the depth and power of this book.
So if you are looking for a light page turner, a gripping thriller, or sappy love triangle, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you are looking for a book to stretch your soul as well as the way you read and write, this is it.
What’s It About?
Housekeeping has a very simple plot that is basically summed up by its opening passage:
“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. Through all of these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered into it.”
More happens, of course, but this pretty much sums up what Housekeeping is about. But this is a very character driven novel, which means the book sustains this simple plot quite well.
Ruth or “Ruthie,” as she is called through much of the book, is the first person narrator who tells the story. She is a little girl at the beginning of the book and a young woman when it ends. She is an awkward, quiet girl who doesn’t fit in with the mainstream society of Fingerbone, the town where the book takes place. The only consistent part of her life is grief and the departure of loved ones.
Lucille is much like Ruthie, her older sister—at least at first. As the girls grow older, they become increasingly different, which is a source of conflict in the book.
Helen is the girls’ mother. Not much is said about her husband, but it’s clear that she isn’t in the picture long. Her daughters are quite small when she drops them off at her mother’s house in Fingerbone and drives a borrowed car into the lake.
Edmund is Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather they never met. He died in a massive train wreck before they were born. He was an amateur artist who took his family to Fingerbone and built a house for them there. He worked for the railroad until his train derailed above the lake, giving all but two passengers a watery burial.
Sylvia is Edmund’s wife. We see a lot more of her than we do of him. After their mother’s death, she takes care of her granddaughters, Ruthie and Lucille, hoping they can fill the void left by her three daughters growing up and leaving. She isn’t around long though, as the beginning of the book suggests.
Lily and Nona After Sylvia’s passing, Lily and Nona, Ruthie and Lucille’s great-aunts, come and stay. They are shallow characters, and I think that is intentional on Robinson’s part. They are essentially the same character, having little or no differences between them. Their favorite pastime is worrying and wishing to go back to the basement apartment where they lived before, which they do once Sylvie comes.
Sylvie is Helen’s sister, Ruthie and Lucille’s aunt. She is one of the most interesting and important characters in the book. After leaving home, she lives the life of a wanderer, riding in boxcars like a hobo. Once she arrives to take care of her nieces, the story begins to take off and develop. She introduces Ruthie and Lucille to her transient, lonely ways, keeping mostly to herself, sleeping on park benches, collecting cans and newspapers, and doing other things that incite curiosity from the town.
As you may have noticed, most of the characters are female. The few male characters that do make an entrance in Housekeeping only stay briefly. Does that mean this book is for a female audience? Does Marilynne Robinson have something against men? No. At its core, this book is about people, men and women, and what it says can apply to anyone.
Themes and Symbols
This is where the book really gets interesting. Along with being very character driven, this book is also driven by its rich themes and symbolism.
As you make your way through the book, you will begin to notice that many images and ideas will repeat themselves over and over again. As I read, I would underline these repeated elements and write in the margin the pages numbers where I had seen other instances of the same image or idea. I was surprised by how much my book filled up with these cross references, as well as underlined text and notes. In fact, I think I marked up this book more than any other I have ever read.
If you have your own copy that you can mark up as you read, I highly recommend doing so. It will help you see how connected the different parts of the story are.
Because our friends in our reading group had already read Housekeeping, they gave us a few hints of what recurring elements to watch out for. This was very helpful for Avery and me, so I want to give you a list of images, events, and words that you will see repeated throughout the book. When you see these, pay attention:
Major themes: housekeeping (obviously), the ordinary, transience, loss, loneliness, reality, broken families.
Important images: the house, the lake, the train, windows, water, light, darkness, ghosts (especially the ghosts of children), anything that multiplies and grows, dogs, strawberries, the moon, dreams.
Also pay close attention to the titles of songs and poems. Robinson did not choose them at random. If you look them up and read them, they add insightful and often chilling background information.
All of this is a lot to remember while reading a book, so make sure your main focus is to read and enjoy it. But as you go, watch for anything that sticks out to you, especially if it pops up again and again throughout the book. These things are important.
The beauty of Robinson’s writing surpasses my ability to convey. Her storytelling is solid, but it’s the parts where she waxes poetic that are particularly mesmerizing. And by waxing poetic, I don’t mean rambling. I mean going deep. She goes so deep that you might struggle to keep up, but if you are patient and try to think about what she is saying, you will find that her writing is truly inspiring and beautiful. And don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. I definitely didn’t. I thought I would give you a taste for these poetic parts by including a couple quotes. Hopefully they whet your appetite for more.
“And as we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream. The comfortable yellow lights of the town were then the only comfort there was in the world, and there were not many of them. If every house in Fingerbone were to fall before our eyes, snuffing every light, the event would touch our senses as softly as a shifting among embers, and then the bitter darkness would step nearer.” —Chapter 2
“Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory—there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.” —Chapter 10
What I Learned
For me, there were two main takeaways from reading Housekeeping. First, the many-layered themes and symbolism pushed me as a reader. Like I said, I think I marked up this book more than any other. Underlining, annotating, taking notes, and cross-referencing as I read this book taught me to better see the interconnectedness of storytelling. As a writer, this is a valuable lesson to learn. When I read a book that really resonates with me, like this one, I start to see it influence my writing. I’m hoping this book will help me take my writing to a deeper level.
The second takeaway is how this book can create empathy. All great fiction builds empathy in its readers, and Housekeeping is a prime example. It paints a vivid picture of what it is like to lose important people in your life. Your heart goes out to the characters because of it, and you may feel yourself becoming more sensitive to the feelings of real people.
In August, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize announced that Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, will be the recipient of the 2016 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. I was happy to hear this news, though it comes as no surprise. Her work has been met with wide acclaim and has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead. And now that I’ve read Housekeeping, I understand the appeal of Robinson’s writing. It has an uncanny depth that is extremely rare in literature. I look forward to sinking my teeth into more of her books and learning from them how to elevate my thinking and my writing.