I was so excited about Housekeeping that I suggested, or rather insisted, my 11 year old read it. She read about four pages and said it was too confusing. I could not let it end there as I felt this was a book she would like. “Why is it too confusing?” I asked. She said she did not understand what was happening.
Okay, let’s look at the first few lines:
“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 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 it.” (page 3)
I love the way Marilynne Robinson’s novel begins, with everything laid out, but I do think sometimes beginnings can be challenging, and this one is particularly knotty because there is so much information packed into the first paragraph — and the quote is only the first three sentences. The first paragraph goes on to the next page and gives the reader lots of detail on how quirky, unique and, well I suppose if I were looking for an old narrative term to attach here I would say, magically real Mr. Edmund Foster, his family and the little town in which all these generations huddled under one roof, Fingerbone are. But this is not 100 Years of Solitude and Marilynne Robinson is not imitating or following any literary schemetic to create a certain mood; rather she is speaking to the real in all its mystery and awe, which makes this quite interesting because it seems so unreal. She is a witness to reality. Not reality in a different way or so incredible it can be characterized as magical. But then again, it is quite magical — life — all by itself. When you read the novel you will see that the person writing is awake to all the nuance and beauty of the world, even when the reality of that world is painful.
I can definitely understand my daughter’s confusion. Who is Ruth again? How old is she? Why is the title Housekeeping? As an 11 year old why would I be interested in a book with the title, Housekeeping?
I thought about how my daughter usually reads books that are obvious. Typically someone is going on an adventure. There is a beginning, middle and end. The end is usually anticipated as being happy. And, happy always means being better off in ways we can all agree upon in society. Sometimes my daughter’s school makes her read non-fiction and then she is drilled for facts.
So, I decided to read Housekeeping to her as it needs to be read slowly and with care. Housekeeping is a wonderful book to read out loud. Thank you, Marilynne Robinson, for all those commas and punctuation. It made it much easier to read to my daughter than say a book like Little Women, where sentences are long and more formal than a normal breath. The same can be said for Pride and Prejudice, which I also read to my daughter and for which I could hardly find a comfortable breathing rhythm. I’m not putting Little Women or Pride and Prejudice down, we are devoted to Jo, and found Darcy charming, but, and this I think is unfortunate, some narrative is not meant to be read aloud; it’s just too filled with formalities, and very complicated statements and does not have nearly enough commas as it ought to have for reading to others. Perhaps because Marilynne Robinson began as a Shakespeare scholar and is now considered a theologian, she naturally — after many years of reading a kind of verse — has a perfectly tuned ear for how a text needs to land on a page so that it can be read out loud.
There were a lot of times we stopped and talked about what was going on, like why Lucille ditches the family — I did not so much as explain as talk about growing up and all of a sudden realizing your family is different and maybe not a good different. Or, maybe societal pressure makes us do things we do not even know we are doing. There were times when my daughter caught things I did not, like how Lucille was “kinda mean” (my daughter’s observation), from the very beginning of the story.
I heard Marilynne Robinson say, in one of the many online interviews I have now watched since reading Housekeeping, that there was not much of a plot here — which, again, is very much like a play. The plot in a play gives it a little structure, but it is not equal to the plot of traditional narrative. My daughter did not believe it was lacking in plot, and she is at the point in school — middle school — when reading is like being in a science lab where teachers examine bits of literature for the main characters and plot structure in order to identify correctly a type of narrative.
There is a lot going on in Housekeeping, even after the first few pages, but much of it is subtle in the way it presents life as reaching for something that we can never really quite own:
“The rising spring stirred a serious, mystical excitement in him, and made him forgetful of her. He would pick up eggshells, a bird’s wing, a jawbone, the ashy fragment of a wasp’s nest. He would peer at each of them with the most absolute attention, and then put them in his pockets, where he kept his jack-knife and his loose change. He would peer at them as if he could read them, and pocket them as if he could own them. This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket, where I keep my reading glasses. At such times he was as forgetful of her as he was of his suspenders and his Methodism, but all the same it was then that she loved him best, as a soul all unaccompanied, like her own.” (page 17)
“… and pocket them as if he could own them.” After reading such a perfect paragraph I thought about all the things I have tried to “pocket as if….” And this jab at your heart is the stunning realization of the book: not only do things fall apart, but they perish too.
Marilynne Robinson also has a classic “theater of the absurd” sense of humor. When Lily and Nona arrive on the scene they are the consummate maiden ladies:
“Lily and Nona both had light blue hair and black coats with shiny black beads in intricate patterns on the lapels. Their thick bodies pitched forward from the hips, and their arms and ankles were plump.” (page 29)
Their conversation is laid out as if the two were sitting on stage and it captures their life in theses neatly packaged sentences as being routined, patterned, predictable, protected by their simple habits, and above all their speech reveals them as indistinguishable from each other since it does not matter, and we do not know, who is talking:
“It would be lovely to take them home.”
“They’d be safer.”
They clicked their tongues.
“We’d all be more comfortable.”
“So near the hospital.”
Lily and Nona are in no way mean or malicious. Rather, they are just two maiden ladies who find themselves uncomfortably thrust into a life in which they are not prepared to live. Their habits are too ingrained to stick it out. They do what is needed until they find, Sylvie, the girls’ aunt, and leave the children to her or rather leave Sylvie in the house with the girls, even though they know she is not up to keeping house either since she is the very antithesis to themselves.
Housekeeping is not a grim book nor is it heartwrenchingly sad all the time, it really seems to me like a coming of age book — I knew I could find a category! Once Sylvie arrives the story is now about Lucille and Ruth and how they must work through their childhood development with Sylvie who has lived an itinerant life, living from one train station to another, hopping freight trains and collecting whatever bits of things she can find — almost like her father Edmund, but without a sense of place or of wanting a place.
Lucille takes one road. Ruth another.
“‘ I just want to go home,” I said. and pushed the door open. Lucille grabbed me by the flesh above my elbow. “Don’t!” she said, pinching me smartly for emphasis. She came with me out onto the sidewalk, still grasping the flesh of my arm. “That’s Sylvie’s house now.” She whispered hissingly and looked wrath. And now I felt her nails, and her glare was more pleading and urgent. “We have to improve ourselves!” she said. “Starting right now!” she said. And again I could think of no reply.
“‘Well, I’ll talk to you about it later,” I murmured, and turned away toward home, and to my amazement, Lucille followed me — a few paces behind, and only for a block or two. Then she stopped without a word and turned and walked back to the drugstore. And I was left alone, in the gentle afternoon, indifferent to my clothes and comfortable in my skin, unimproved and without the prospect of improvement. It seemed to me then that Lucille would busy herself forever, nudging, pushing, coaxing, as if she could supply the will I lacked, to pull myself into some seemly shape and slip across the wide frontiers into that other world, where it seemed to me then I could never wish to go. For it seemed to me that nothing I had lost, or might lose, could be found there, or, to put it another way, it seemed that something I had lost might be found in Sylvie’s house.
Housekeeping is Ruth’s story. In a sense it is about keeping house and our cultural concern for keeping up the house. But, it is also about family and keeping your family together. For is not the very essence of a house to keep a family?
“For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.”
Housekeeping is a beautiful book. Read it slowly. Read it more than once.