The dozen writers in my Novel-in-a-Year cohort at StoryStudio Chicago are all serious readers as well as writers. Over the past months, they’ve pointed me toward THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE IDIOT, THE AGE OF LIGHT, and now Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING.
HOUSEKEEPING was a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Robinson eventually won the Pulitzer in 2004 for her second novel, GILEAD. Unquestionably, she is a talented and important author, so I opened HOUSEKEEPING predisposed to like it. I found much to love. Here are two favorite sentences:
She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.
It seemed as if I were trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich while hanging by the neck.
The story is set in a fictional western town (I thought Fingerbone was in Washington, but Wikipedia says Idaho), told in first person by protagonist Ruth. Ruth and her sister Lucy are abandoned by their mother Helen, dropped off when very young at the home of their maternal grandmother (whom they’ve never met) at a time of day their mother knows the grandmother will not be at home. Abandonment, natch, is at the heart of the story.
Robinson’s prose in HOUSEKEEPING is lyrical and poetic. Her descriptions of the landscape and the very atmosphere of the region are exquisite—evocative of longing, loneliness, and loss. The book is in fact long on such beautiful descriptions, and rather short on dialogue and action. It’s also long on philosophy.
I don’t mind philosophical musings in a novel, but I’d like the pearls of wisdom to come from discoveries the characters make during the course of the story. In HOUSEKEEPING, I often felt the philosophizing came from the author, not Ruth. From time to time, I was tempted to skip ahead.
I have other complaints about the novel, I’m sorry to say.
Early on, a passenger train plunges off a high bridge into a frigid, glacial lake. We are told (more than once) a porter and a waiter standing at the railing of the caboose survive, but we never learn how, or what they had to say about the experience. I reached the last page still wondering about the train wreck and the survivors.
Helen, the mother of the two little girls, after leaving them at the grandmother’s house, proceeds to end her life by driving off a cliff into (I think) the same lake. The mother’s suicide is treated as rather quaint, almost whimsical, with no clue about Helen’s reasons for abandoning her children. In the same way, Sylvie, the aunt who eventually steps in to look after Ruth and Lucy, is portrayed as quaintly eccentric. We learn that Sylvie has spent years “riding the rails,” but we never learn why she chose or was forced into a transient life. The girls’ other aunt, Molly, we are told early on, went to China to be a missionary, but she is never mentioned again.
In the end, HOUSEKEEPING annoyed me. Sylvie, the eccentric, transient aunt, is a hoarder and for the most part a terrible housekeeper. Her over-dreaminess and the general over-dreaminess of the novel made me want to grab a dust rag or a mop and do some actual housekeeping.
I think avid readers and writers like me should read prizewinning as well as best-selling novels. It’s our duty as members of the literary community to be fully educated about the fiction industry. I wish I had liked HOUSEKEEPING better, but I don’t regret the hours I spent reading it.