Monday, January 09, 2012

The Housekeeper and the Professor

The first order of business in this review is to thank and send a virtual hug to Nancy from Bookfoolery and Babble for sending her copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor! I've had my eye on this book for what seems like forever, and it would've been another age of waiting if Nancy hadn't been so kind.

Yoko Ogawa's novel is a quiet work, not full of twisty plot developments or high-powered characters. It's the story of an aging mathematician whose memory stopped in 1975 and from then on only exists in 80 minute chunks before being promptly forgotten. The narrator of the novel is hired on as his housekeeper with quite a few stipulations and rules in place. While she's originally intimidated by the surroundings -- a filthy cottage, the recluse Professor -- somehow she begins to build a friendship with him. When her son, nicknamed Root by the Professor, comes into the picture, the three really become a team. While the Professor gets to know them anew several times a day, he uses notes pinned to his suit to keep his bearings and reacquaint himself with the pair over and over again. It's always a love of numbers, baseball, and enduring kindness that tethers them together.

Math is not high on the list of things that entertain me. I was the person in college who, upon changing degrees  from a BFA in Graphic Design to a BA in English, threw a fit at having to take college algebra. However, I've now had the pleasure of reading two stunning works of literature that integrate math! The first I read and loved was Proof, by David Auburn. I thought it was a feeling never to be recreated, but as it turns out, Ogawa's work is just as charming, just as challenging, and just as illuminating.

A couple of literary devices stand out straight off. None of the characters, aside from Root, are named. The housekeeper is a nondescript, uneducated, single mom just trying to do her best for her son. She gets by one day at a time. The Professor is special...a genius, but he's taking life one 80 minute stretch at a time. Every day that the housekeeper arrives at the Professor's cottage, he asks for her birthday. He finds relationships between seemingly random numbers. The connections provide calm in his otherwise turbulent and confusing daily life. The housekeeper soon finds herself engrossed in a burgeoning understanding of mathematics as the Professor is never opposed to explaining his concepts in thoughtful and beautiful ways. The housekeeper finds new order and wonder in her daily life as she learns from the Professor.
As I mopped the office floor, my mind churning with worries about Root, I realized how much I needed this eternal truth that the Professor had described. I needed the sense that this invisible world was somehow propping up the visible one, that this one, true line extended infinitely, without width or area, confidently piercing through the shadows. Somehow, this line would help me find peace. (116)
The nameless characters certainly lend an Everyman quality to this novel, and the mathematics adds a kind of commonality among the characters. The Professor often discusses his mathematical work as peeking into "God's notebook." While the Professor's concepts are often advanced, the math adds a universal truth that reflects the universality of friendship and love.

Going in, I was slightly afraid the memory loss element would seem hokey, but it really didn't at any time. After the first few chapters Ogawa largely omits any discussion of the Professor's memory loss in a given day and the reader gets snippets of their lives: the housekeeper cooking dinner for the Professor as he lays in his recliner, Root doing his homework with the Professor's help, the three listening to a baseball game, gathered around an outdated radio. These glimpses into daily life and into specific moments help create the feeling of an ongoing friendship, even though in reality it is constantly interrupted. The friendly tie among the characters is stronger than memory loss and the ongoing blips.

As I mentioned in the beginning, this is a quiet novel. It moves gracefully through the story of these three friends and it was easy to set it aside and come back to it. But it was also one of those finely written novels that I wanted to savor. I've done a lot of marking passages in this book, and it's one that would certainly be worth a re-read. 

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: February 2009
Publisher: Picador
Format: Trade Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-0312427801
Source: Gift

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