#4: Housekeeping (1980), by Marilynne Robinson

If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation … just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows.


Marilynne Robinson’s literary biography is fascinating: With little fanfare, she publishes a quiet novel called Housekeeping in 1980, which threatens to be lost in the flood until Anatole Broyard of The New York Times bestows upon it a career-making lead review. The novel begins its shelf life as a modern classic, a finely-chiseled masterpiece that only gains in stature once Robinson ceases to publish more fiction for another 25 years. Robinson has since written two well-received novels (one of which won the Pulitzer Prize) and some works of nonfiction, but Housekeeping lingers as a found artifact, a novel critics and admirers have to figure out new ways to call beautiful. (Let’s see how many I can come up with.)

And make no mistake, this is a “beautiful” novel. It takes place on a lake in the middle of nowhere, and though it’s likely set sometime in the second half of the 20th century, it feels like a story plucked out of recorded time. Even the mass-produced paperback is a triumph of marketing, making you feel with its spare cover design and classic typesetting that you’re reading a special text.

And of course, there’s the language, which is really the basis of Robinson’s esteemed reputation. My edition features this quote from Doris Lessing: “This is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.” And this from Mary Gordon: “Every sentence is a wonderful sentence, made just right.” And, not to be outdone, Walker Percy: “Housekeeping is a haunting dream of a story told in a language as sharp and clear as light and air and water.”

So Housekeeping comes to the reader branded as an Important Novel that Demands Close Attention. (Indeed, Catch-22 was a relative breeze compared to this one.) But did it click for me? Was I captivated by the narrative poetry, or was this another case of Gorgeous Prose being just a euphemism for Boring Slog?

A little of each, I must admit. There were parts of this slender novel that took some doing to keep reading. It’s light on plot and heavy on imagery, so it requires a focus that at times I wasn’t willing to give. But then I’d come across a paragraph like this and read it twice, it was so good:

Lucille and I worked that winter on skating backward, and pivoting on one foot. We were often the last to leave, so absorbed we were in our skating and in the silence and the numbing sweetness of the air … 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.

That excerpt sums up Robinson’s narrative m.o.; she presents these pastoral, idyllic scenes in the loveliest language you can think of but places under the surface a broiling tension. The lake is truly haunted: it was the scene of a train accident that took the lives of the narrator’s grandfather, and later of her mother’s death when she drives her car into it. Death and disappearance hover over every page, and the general mood is one of foreboding.

Its opening lines are reminiscent of Melville’s Moby-Dick, and just about as celebrated: “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. Sylvie Fisher.”

It’s important to work that family tree out, because the bulk of the story is contained in those two sentences. The six women Ruth lists (including herself) are pretty much the only characters in the whole novel, and more importantly, the only people Ruth ever interacts with.

You’ll also notice that none of them are men. The only male of note in this novel is Ruthie’s grandfather, Edmund, who dies in the train accident years before her birth. Once Robinson is finished describing it, he is never spoken of again. The upshot is that Ruthie’s only relationships are with the females in her family, a family shrouded in tragedy and transience. To say that Ruthie lives a cloistered existence is understating it; some folks have observed that she barely speaks in the novel, while I’d argue it’s a wonder she can communicate meaningfully at all.

I confess that I admire this novel more than I love it. Robinson’s writing is as pristine as advertised, but it kept me at a remove. Only in the final two or three chapters did I truly connect with it, and it’s probably not coincidence that those three chapters are the most eventful. Perhaps this says more about me as a reader than it does Robinson as an author; I certainly don’t need tons of action to keep me engaged, but when I come across a book that seems fairly uninterested in things like plot, I’m not always inclined to slow down and do the close reading it demands.

Next up: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye!

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