Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review - Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead was the first of Marilynne Robinson’s books I read, but I loved it so much I wanted to explore her other novels, and I think there are only two – Housekeeping and Home. Housekeeping begins by confronting the reader with a mystery of sorts:

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.

Right away, I wondered why Ruth and Lucille Stone had so many caretakers. Were they such disobedient girls that no one wanted them? How did they lose their mother, their grandmother (well, she did die, no mystery there), and their great aunts? All of them? What caused the comical and sometimes bumbling Lily and Nona to flee?

I soon saw that where Gilead revolved around the relationship between a father and a son, Housekeeping, which is set in the fictional town of Fingerbone in the 1950s, was going to revolve around women and their more difficult and complicated relationships. That brought up more questions: Do men always leave or die prematurely in Ruth and Lucille’s world? In the end, are woman always left alone?

Set in the desolate mountains of Idaho, Fingerbone seems like the end of the world, and it most definitely is the end of the line for several of the town’s train travelers. Near the beginning of the book, Robinson dispenses with the only man around by writing of the catastrophic derailing of a train and its slide into Fingerbone Lake. That derailing took the life of Edmund Foster, the grandfather of Ruthie, our protagonist, and her younger sister, Lucille. In fact, it was Edmund who relocated the family to Idaho. It was Edmund who set into motion the family’s strange relationship with the wild, windswept, wintry landscape of the northern mountains. Edmund’s slide into his watery grave, for his body was never recovered, highlights one of this book’s major themes: loss and how different people deal with loss and the grief it ensues.

Strangely – or maybe not so strangely – Edmund’s wife, Sylvia (not to be confused with her youngest daughter, Sylvie) decides to deal with the loss of her husband by simply not speaking of him. Our narrator, Ruthie, and her younger sister, Lucille, suffer a similar loss when their mother, Helen, drops them off on the porch of their grandmother Sylvia’s Fingerbone home, with only a box of graham crackers to comfort them, then drives her borrowed car off a cliff and into the lake. Ruthie and Lucille are left with nothing but questions about who their mother really was, while Sylvia deals with the grief of losing her middle daughter in the same way she dealt with the loss of her husband. She simply doesn’t speak of Helen or the way she died.

While Grandma Sylvia tries her best to give Ruthie and Lucille a sense of normalcy, Grandma Sylvia also knows she can’t live forever. When she dies five years into caring for her motherless granddaughters, it’s her sisters-in-law, the quaint-but-bumbling Lily and Nona Foster, who arrive in Fingerbone to care for the girls.

Lily and Nona add a bit of humor to this otherwise delicately bleak book. They’re people one would expect to meet in an English drawing room farce rather than in dreary Fingerbone, Idaho. The sisters really don’t resemble the Foster family at all, save for the fact that neither one comes right out and says what she really means. Here are Lily and Nona discussing their first glimpse of Sylvie, Ruth’s and Lucille’s youngest aunt, and the person they hope will take over as caretaker of the girls:

So when Lily said, with a glance at Nona, “What a lovely dress,” it was as if to say, “She seems rather sane! She seems rather normal!” And when Nona said, “You look very well,” it was as if to say, “Perhaps she’ll do! Perhaps she can stay and we can go!”

And, go they do, the very same day Sylvie arrives. It’s not Ruth and Lucille they cannot tolerate; it’s Fingerbone. From this point on, Sylvie Foster Fisher will be the primary caretaker of Ruth and Lucille Stone, and the book is really the story of Ruthie’s relationship with her aunt, Sylvie, an eccentric, free spirited woman, and how that relationship, for better or worse, shapes the person Ruthie becomes.

There isn’t much plot in Housekeeping. Almost all of the book’s events take place in or around the rather odd house Edmund Foster built at the edge of town. I’m a fan of character driven novels over plot driven ones. I certainly don’t need a book to be “heavily plotted.” I love Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and John Banville’s The Sea, neither of which can be said to be heavily plotted. But, while there are few “big events” in Housekeeping, the set pieces, most of which are only one or two pages in length, are lovely.

One of the book’s key scenes occurs when Lucille, who is growing tired of Sylvie’s bohemian ways, turns on the light during dinner. Sylvie prefers to eat dinner in the dark because she dislikes the starkness of the dark windows against a lighted room, however the light only serves to illuminate Sylvie’s complete ineptitude as a housekeeper. Dried leaves have gathered in the corners of the rooms, newspapers are stacked precariously, one on top of another, burned curtains are hanging at the windows, and mountains of tin cans with the labels removed – Sylvie’s newest “housekeeping fetish” – are ringed around the room. Even Sylvie doesn’t know why she’s saving so many of them.

Water plays an important role in this book. We never really get a good look at the town of Fingerbone, which was “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather,” but we do get several looks at the lake that overshadows it, the same lake that took the lives of both Edmund Foster, and many years later, his adult daughter, Helen. The lake, which is “a place of distinctly domestic disorder,” surrounded by “uncountable mountains” seems to draw, if not Lucille, at least Ruthie and Sylvie, to it. And even those residents of Fingerbone who were not drawn to the lake could not escape its waters, for every spring, the lake flooded the town, washing away the past, but not before tarnishing the present, and perhaps the future as well, with the mud and silt such a washing away would bring. Strangely, it’s the lake that will allow two of the book’s characters to escape to what we hope will be a happier life, a life that’s at least free of the mores and fears and judgments of the narrow minded townspeople.

It’s difficult to write about Housekeeping without giving away its scant plot, but suffice to say that Ruthie and Lucille decide on very different paths in life, and for the first time, the lives of the sisters diverge. This is especially difficult for Ruthie because Lucille had always spoken for both herself and for her older sister. Now, Ruth has to find someone else with whom to identify. And, the town does not take kindly to gentle Aunt Sylvie and the cavalier way Sylvie treats things like church and school and well, housekeeping, itself. The townsfolk despise Sylvie’s transience and believe something should be done to save Ruthie from suffering the same fate. Yet they seem to overlook, despite the yearly flooding, the fact that life, by its very nature, is transient. Everything gets swept away...eventually.

Robinson is excellent at characterization. She not only sums up who her characters are on the inside, she paints a vivid portrait of how they appear on the outside as well. This is Ruthie describing Bernice, a woman who lived in their building in the Middle West, before they came to Fingerbone:

Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them.

The writing, most of which is bleak and not at all comical, is gorgeous and flowing. I’ve heard some people call the book one long poem. It’s not a poem, though, it’s a novel written in low-key, poetic sentences that remain lyrical while never showing off. Here’s Ruthie talking about one of the family dinners, eaten with Sylvie in the darkness of a summer night, and this is, I think, one of the most beautiful passages in the entire book:

We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others and we had lost our sight.

Robinson also has a keen eye for describing nature, especially winter:

If one pried up earth with a stick on those days, one found massed shafts of ice, slender as needles and pure as spring water.

As one reads Housekeeping, one becomes aware that it isn’t a book of ideas so much as it’s a book of symbols and impressions. Robinson has assigned Ruthie the task of narrating with Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” Emerson, himself, described the “transparent eyeball” in his 1836 essay titled Nature:

We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

If that sounds a bit mystical, Emerson meant for it to sound that way, and Robinson’s book, too, explores people who have access to the mystical in life, at least in nature. On one very strange trip across the lake in a stolen boat, Sylvie tells Ruth how she (Sylvie) can see and feel the presence of the ghosts of children, and we have no reason to disbelieve her.

Housekeeping is a profound book, without really sounding profound, but it isn’t a book that will make most readers feel better about life. Housekeeping lets us know that loneliness and isolation are necessary parts of life, perhaps big parts of life that must be endured and embraced by everyone. The mystery in this book – why Helen drove the borrowed car into Fingerbone Lake, why Grandma Sylvia refused to acknowledge her grief at the loss of her husband and daughter, why Ruthie and Lucille acted as they did – is best expressed by Ruthie as she muses on the suicide of Helen:

Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.

In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson has crafted a haunting novel that leaves both the book’s characters and the reader with more questions than it answers, questions that are, perhaps, unanswerable.


Recommended: Absolutely, for lovers of highly literary, character driven fiction. Be aware, though, that this is a very quiet novel.

You can find my review of Gilead here.

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