Saturday, December 31, 2016

Completed: Housekeeping

As we skidded into the final days of 2016, we read our 4th and final book together of the year: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Overall impression: Lovely book and lovely writing. For a not-very-plot-driven book, it captured our attention and was basically un-put-downable.

One slight criticism, raised by Jenny: The narrator is supposed to be uneducated but her prose doesn't really indicate that.

Kelly argued that it does in many ways -- short sentences strung together like (randomly selected page here):
People came down to the water’s edge, carrying lamps. Most of them stood on the shore, where in time they built a fire. But some of the taller boys and younger men walked out on the railroad bridge with ropes and lanterns. Two or three covered themselves with black grease and tied themselves up in rope harnesses, and the others lowered them down into the water at the place where the porter and the waiter thought the train must have disappeared. After two minutes timed on a stopwatch, the ropes were pulled in again and the divers walked. [6]
As a quick rebuttal, Jenny opened to another random page and offered a passage like this one:
It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains. [9]
Point made. But still... the language is so beautiful and the images are so evocative that these inconsistencies are forgiven.

We both agreed that the role and descriptions of the water in this book were incredible. One line about the water that Kelly highlighted (highlit?) was this one: "By evening the lake there had sealed itself over." [8] Just so spooky and lovely!

The term "housekeeping" evokes the idea of taking care of your family/spouse/children, but so much of this book is about women not being able to care for their sisters and what impact that has: Sylvie unable to take care of her sister (the girls' mother), who commits suicide. Our narrator Ruth, unable to care for her sister Lucille, who leaves home to find care elsewhere.

Finally, we spent some time dissecting the final, heart-breaking line of the book:
No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, 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. [219]
"This woman" is Lucille, Ruth's sister, sitting in a restaurant in Boston, waiting for a friend. The negatives in the sentence makes it kind of confusing, because this is speculation. Ruth is not really watching Lucille, but that does not mean that she is not thinking of them, waiting for them, hoping for them. The turn of "always for me and Sylvie" makes the reader understand that yes, yes she is waiting and hoping for them. Lovely and heartbreaking.

Further Reading
At the end of our discussion, we talked about "further reading" -- more about this author, the fact that she went 25 years between publishing this and her next work of fiction, etc. Here are a few links that give more insight, both to the book and to the author.

It was an "NEA Big Read" -- a lot of information on the book here, including discussion questions (like, "At the end of the novel, why do Sylvie and Ruthie take such an extreme step?" which is something that we discussed) and a pretty in-depth Bio.

Here's the NYT book review from 1981, when the book was released (damn, I love the Internet.)

Here's a conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson (he named her book Gilead as one of his favorite books) where he basically interviews her, which is... pretty cool. This takes place in 2014. Interesting to read some of these observations, considering the recent election.

And here's an interview with her from January 2016 -- she's got some interesting opinions about the world. We might want to have a Book Chat just about Marilynne Robinson!

1 comment:

  1. Oh, thanks for all those links! I got a little distracted when I fell into the NEA Big Read one---I'm doing a parent book talk in February for Station Eleven and might have to borrow some of their discussion questions.

    Lovely job on the summary. I suspect this one will stay with me for a while. Definitely interested enough to check out her other novels in 2017.