Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

I hadn’t heard of Marilynne Robinson (a fellow native Idahoan) until sometime in 2004 or 2005 when she won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her second novel Gilead. That I had never heard of her, despite our stepping into this world in the same state, is understandable: between Gilead and her first novel Housekeeping (1980) was a span of twenty-four years. For some reason, I still haven’t gotten around to reading Gilead though I’ve picked it up a few times. Now that her third book Home is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, I thought it was time to go back the beginning and work my way through Robinson’s short (but definitely not inconsequential) oeuvre.

Housekeeping won the PEN/Hemingway Award, an award given to a work of first work of fiction by an American author. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, the year Rabbit Is Rich won. Compared to the other first novels I’ve read this year, Housekeeping is hands-down the best. In fact, it may be one of the best books I’ve read in years by any author. I’ll soon be making my way through Gilead and Home, and if they follow this vein, I’ll put Robinson in the first-tier of American authors.

Our narrator is Ruth, whose sad and strange childhood we will hear about. In the first chapter (a chapter that had as much content and characterization as many novels) we meet our narrator’s heritage. Her grandfather and grandmother lived in Fingerbone, a small western town with all its small town charm:

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.

Ruth’s grandfather is killed when his train careens into the large lake, a moment that goes into the town’s lore. The grandmother then raises their three daughters on her own. Each daughter moves on to a rather tragic life with terrible men. Ruth’s mother Helen is not the exception, and she manages to bring two daughters of her own, Ruth and Lucille, into this marriage. Eventually Helen borrows a neighbor’s car, drives Ruth and Lucille to Fingerbone, and leaves them on grandmother’s steps. Helen then drives the car into the lake, another event that is long remembered in Fingerbone. The grandmother takes in the two abandoned girls and tries to set up a nice home for them.

Yes, all of this is in the first short chapter, but it feels much more substantial than such a short chapter is usually capable of. As the story continues, the grandmother cannot hang on to life. Her two comical, elderly sisters, Lily and Nona, come to try their bumbling hands with Ruth and Lucille.

Their alarm was evident from the first, in the nervous flutter with which they searched their bags and pockets for the little present they had brought (it was a large box of cough drops — a confection they considered both tasty and salubrious).

When Lily and Nona realize they cannot raise the two young girls (not that they were ever comfortable with the idea of leaving their nice home in Spokane), they send for Sylvie, Helen’s transient sister. Sylvie comes and agrees to stay, though Ruth and Lucille expect her to leave any day. And this is the setup for a strange and touching story about the relationship between Ruth, Lucille, and their eccentric aunt Sylvie.

Never having been a young girl, I can’t speak for the accuracy of the coming of age elements in the story, but they felt real to me. As they grow up, Ruth and Lucille go down different paths. Ruth accepts their past for what it was. Lucille can’t.

. . . and sometimes we would try to remember our mother, though more and more we disagreed and even quarreled about what she had been like. Lucille’s mother was orderly, vigorous, and sensible, a widow (more than I ever knew or she could prove) who was killed in an accident. My mother presided over a life so strictly simple and circumscibed that it could not have made any significant demands on her attention. She tended us with a gentle indifference that made me feel she would have liked to have been even more alone — she was the abandoner, and not the one abandoned.

Worse, Lucille cannot accept Sylvie, who with her remoteness and tendency to disappear, constantly intimating abandonment, represents everything Lucille is trying to escape. Furthermore, it’s getting embarrassing. The house begins to fall into disrepair, and everyone is worried because Ruth seems to accept too easily Sylvie’s habits.

Robinson’s tone thoughout strikes the right note for me. Somehow she injects into her prose the atmosphere of Fingerbone, with its foggy lake, along with the transiency of the characters. Though the town remains in place, it always seems to be drifting away into the past. At the same time, the past does not disappear — the lake remains, and somewhere down there is a wrecked train and car.

Another reason I liked the book is because of Robinson’s control of her imagery. Throughout, Robinson plays with water and fire to create a very interesting feel — for example, “It was blocked, in fact by a big green couch so weighty and shapeless that it looked as if it had been hoisted out of forty feet of water.” — but it never, to me, was heavy handed. Obviously such imagery is Biblical, as is much of the imagery in the book, bringing to mind some excellent classics, but never does she do more than allude to religion. I’m anxious to see how she moves from this to her more overtly religious novels.

17 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

  1. 3m says:

    Marilynne Robinson’s writing is sooooooooo beautiful. The only book I’ve read by her is Gilead, and I gave it a rare 5 star rating. I have Home and hope to read it in the next month or two. I also have Housekeeping and would like to read that in 2009 sometime.

  2. Stewart says:

    Like 3m, Gilead is the only book of Robinson’s three that I’ve read but I’m in no hurry to read any of the other two as I forced myself through Gilead coming to resent it with every page. What I didn’t like about it then, I can no longer remember in detail, although I just didn’t enjoy this one sided overlong letter. It did nothing for me.

  3. Interesting perspectives from two respected opinions. I bought Gilead at the same time I bought Housekeeping, so I’ll get to it fairly soon. I’m anxious to see where I stand. Interestingly, when the NY Times did its best American novel of the last 25 years, Gilead had been written, but Housekeeping was the only book by Robinson to make the list. In fact, it was one of only two books by female authors, the other being Beloved which won the poll.
    We linked to this article before and started a discussion on female American authors, and I’m inclined to say that Housekeeping is up at the top of my list – at least today.

  4. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m torn between two opinions from indidivuals whose opinions I value and respect, John and Trevor. My reaction to Home was pretty much the same as John’s to Gilead — a growing resentment, although the last 20 pages did a lot to relieve that. It also created a wish that more of the book had been about “home” and less about “church”. Offsetting that we have Trevor’s positive impression of Housekeeping and a review that indicates it has more of the elements that I liked and fewer of those that I didn’t. I am inclined to give it a try, but do think I’ll wait a few months.

  5. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: I think a short bio of yourself might be in order, given some of the hints. We now know you were born in Idaho. That an MFA professor liked Saul Bellow. That you live somewhere near NYC and Newark, but have a long commute. Also, that you are a relatively new father. I seem to also recall a reference to having spent some time in the UK. In order to place your opinions in a context, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to ask for a short summary of your life to date.

  6. Kevin, are you referring to Stewart’s comments above? On the NBA page, John seemed to say he was impressed by Gilead, especially the voice, but had no memory of it now and no desire to read Home. That doesn’t necessarily mean he liked it. Stewart above said his resentment grew. Not that I think you don’t respect Stewart’s opinion too. I know I do!

    As for a bio, it’s probably more intriguing to leave it at hints! However, your request is reasonable, and I have no problem divulging a bit. At this moment, however, I have only a moment so I’ll wait a bit. All that you mention above, however, is true!

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    I was referring to Stewart, yes, sorry about the confusion. (This isn’t the first time I have confused them either — I gave John credit for pointing out the Book Depository, when it was Stewart who first mentioned in on the MB site. Could be some bad sub-conscious at work here.) Although now that I think about it, I would add John’s NBA post as a third valued opinion adding to my dilemma. I may be projecting here but when I say I too felt some “resentment” (Stewart) it came from feeling that an excellent writing talent (John) was being wasted (my projection). As I said in my short post on the NBA thread, I’m also not sure just how much of that was coming from my own biases and how much from the author.

    I’m glad I at least remember your hints properly. A bio isn’t necessary but it would fill in some gaps. On the other hand, the ex-journalist in me is quite content with gathering available data and then jumping to completely unjustified conclusions. I did it for a living for 26 years; I can certainly dust off the old talents. You might not like the result.

  8. Stewart says:

    I dug up something I’d written on a forum a couple of years back (Aug-06) which gives a bit of a clue as to what it was about the book:

    I read Gilead earlier this year and should have put it down early as I did not engage one bit with the character. The voice was charming, the verbage wonderful, but the character, in my eyes, downright boring. One of the last people, to use something hackneyed, that I would want to invite round for dinner (so it’s carrots for him ;-) ).

    I also blame that book for being so dull that, after putting it down, I embarked upon a six week barren spell where I could not read; I just did not want to. It scabbed up, the wound healed, and I’m reading again.

    I have no idea what the carrots reference was about. Perhaps he went on and on about them. What shocks me most was that it was only two years ago I read Gilead! It feels like a lifetime since. Fair enough I’ve read 163 books fully, with plenty more abandoned in the time since. But still…!

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    Stewart: I haven’t read Gilead but my guess is that carrots are what you fed guests that you didn’t really want in the book, since they are so common (the image does come up in Home). Kevin

  10. _lethe_ says:

    Hi, I was bloghopping and came across your site.
    Beautiful review of Housekeeping, one of my favourite books ever.

    I also have Gilead waiting, but I find the subject slightly off-putting.

    Question regarding the book by Richard Yates a few posts back: is ‘lonelines’ spelled with one s on the actual cover?

  11. Thanks for hopping in, lethe. And nice catch with the Yates cover. I didn’t even notice. This is not the version I read (mine was a first edition hardcover from the local library), so I can’t really say if someone messed up the cover.

    That’s an embarassing mistake for a publishing house.

  12. Thanks for this review. I seriously considered buying this recently but instead bought Gilead, which I am now in the middle of. I’m impressed so far — Robinson is very talented. Surely, along with Toni Morrison, she is one of the best American female writers.

  13. I bought Gilead at the same time, but I haven’t opened it yet. From the sounds of it, I think I’ll like Housekeeping more, but I am anxious to read another of her books – and I would put her above Toni Morrison, but only because I have yet to really enjoy a Toni Morrison novel. I’m intrigued by A Mercy but don’t know when I’ll muster up the will to read it.

  14. KevinfromCanada says:

    I am having exactly the same response to A Mercy — part of me feels that I should read it, all of the reviews I’ve read tell me I probably would not like it. I’m waiting for someone in the blogging community to tip the balance before deciding. I have a similar response to Morrison — she is an author that I feel I should like and respect, but I don’t really enjoy or get much from her novels, even though I know they are very good.

  15. Incidentally, I loved Gilead — so much so that I’ve already bought Home and am hugely looking forward to reading it. But I’m reading Housekeeping first! Personally, though I’m only halfway through Housekeeping, so far I prefer Gilead. Housekeeping, though beautiful, is just a lot denser, and a little lacking in immediacy for my taste — the work of a great young writer who believes there is no limit on the amount of description a novel should have.

  16. I’m glad to hear a good word about Gilead, Jonathan. I’m not sure when I’ll begin it, but I have it on my shelf. Interesting that you say Housekeeping is denser. From the other comments here I would have thought the opposite. I assume I’ll get to Gilead in the next month or two, and I’ll look forward to your thoughts on this novel and Home!

  17. An interesting note to this book’s title:

    While reading it I thought it merely referred to Sylvie’s attempts to set up and keep a home (cooking, cleaning, etc.), and this is referred to often enough both before Sylvie comes along and after.

    However, I’ve been looking at several zoning ordinances here in the U.S. and have been surprised at how often they define a “single-famly home” as one in which a “family” does its “housekeeping.” And, interestingly, many go further to say that this means a family doing its own cleaning and cooking.

    When litigated, these ordinances are shown to have been used to keep non-traditional “families” out of these zoned areas. They really are used to create a certain kind of community with certain types of families and “values.”

    The court and the family law system is an absent presence in this book. The threat of state interference is palpable, and the way Sylvie raises these children is far from traditional. I’m not saying that the state would have used the zoning ordinance to take the children away (that would not be possible, I don’t think, because the zoning ordinance just means you cannot reside there – another idea in the book). I’m probably way off here, but when family law comes in contact with zoning ordinances, “housekeeping” is one of those strange words that pops up.

    This was such a good book! Still on my mind.

Leave a Reply