(Book Review) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

By Melinda Guerra

housekeepingI grew up in church, and I spent my formative years memorizing Bible verses and running relay races with other kids in the church’s basement. Church was a home when I was young, and it came with an extended extended family, its members quieter than the extended family I saw on weekends and holidays, and also different shades of brown and less inclined to drink and swear in my presence. I left the faith in stages, and even once I was as gone from it as I think I’m going to be (which is still to say not completely gone, though parsing issues of belonging and not belonging no longer interest me), I continued to attend church with these people who were like family. When I finally left the church, it was because I left the state, and it never occurred to me to find a new place to call home: I wasn’t at church then because I needed a religious service, but because I liked being with the people who’d helped shape whom I’d become. When I miss them now it’s in the way you miss an old friend with whom you share only history, similar to the particular way in which I sometimes miss aspects of my former faith.

Marilynne Robinson is among the very few authors who can make me nostalgic for the faith and church family I left, and she does it even when she’s not actually writing about faith. When Robinson published her first book, Housekeeping, in 1980, it was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the PEN/Faulkner award. Her subsequent novels (spread out over the years) have continued to win awards, and for good reason. If you haven’t yet read her novels, that’s a problem you should remedy, and her first novel is a great place to begin.

In Housekeeping, Robinson introduces us to two young adolescent girls: Ruth, the narrator, and her younger sister, Lucille. Cared for and then left by their mother (who delivered them to her mother’s porch before driving off a cliff), their grandmother (who “eschewed awakening” one morning), and their grandmother’s sisters-in-law (who, elderly and perpetually frightened, cared for the children anxiously until their aunt arrived to take over), the girls eventually end up in the care of their mother’s youngest sister, Sylvie, a drifter. They love Sylvie, and they live in constant fear that she, too, will leave them. They are unsettled by how often she wears her coat and goes on walks, by the frequency of trains in her stories, by her preference to eat dinner only in the dark once the sun has set, and her other various eccentricities.  

There were other things about Sylvie’s housekeeping that bothered Lucille. For example, Sylvie’s room was just as my grandmother had left it, but the closet and the drawers were mostly empty, since Sylvie kept her clothes and even her hairbrush and toothpowder in a cardboard box under the bed. She slept on top of the covers, with a quilt over her, which during the daytime she pushed under the bed also. Such habits (she always slept clothed, at first with her shoes on, and then, after a month or two, with her shoes under her pillow) were clearly the habits of a transient. They offended Lucille’s sense of propriety…. It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.   – pages 102, 103

As the novel progresses, we watch the three learn to live together in the home Sylvie’s father built for her mother during the life they shared before his death, when his children were growing up. He, like his middle child Helen (the girls’ mother), died in the nearby lake, though his death came when the train he was riding in slid into the lake, never to be recovered. Upon his death, his widow mused that it was a somewhat expected defection, given how often he was gone from their family even when he was with them. The separateness which seems to have been true from the glimpses of their marriage we are privy to is not limited to their own relationship. Ruth’s grandmother speaks rarely of her children, irritated when they’re mentioned, and the girls know little of their father beyond his name and two photos they’ve seen of him. Even when the girls are finally under Sylvie’s care and question her about their family, answers seem vague and to always fall short of satisfying the curiosity of the children.

Ruth and Lucille are nearly inseparable as children, but as they grow up (in age, and also in the way they respond to their circumstances), two distinctly different young women emerge. Age makes the older more introspective about life and charitable toward her Aunt Sylvie, and the younger more critical of life and terribly pained by the many things about Sylvie she considers to be failings, not the least of which is her influence on Ruth. Sylvie is both witness to and catalyst for some of the changes the sisters undergo, and loves the girls while giving them a wide berth to become the less-young versions of themselves.

Marilynne Robinson has said Housekeeping began as a series of metaphors she’d written down which one day all seemed to fit together. Her skill with metaphor is evident throughout the pages of this book, as is her ability to make descriptive paragraphs achingly beautiful. Lakes, woods, and houses all carry with them significant meaning for the characters, and various biblical stories and characters–written in ways that seem beautiful and human rather than crass or aloof–make their appearances as well. Robinson does it all gracefully, and it’s not unusual to have to put down Housekeeping (or any of her books, really) for a few moments after a paragraph has done a thing to your heart, and take a walk or a smoke or a small cry in the corner of a dark room as you let her words work through you.

I cannot taste a cup of water but I recall that the eye of the lake is my grandfather’s, and that the lake’s heavy, blind, encumbering waters composed my mother’s limbs and weighted her garments and stopped her breath and stopped her sight. There is remembrance, and communion, altogether human and unhallowed. 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.
Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes.  – Pages 193, 194

Housekeeping is a lovely novel and an easy read, even if it does leave its readers needing quiet space alone to process and let images and paragraphs wash over us. It’s also the book Bookish will be discussing in June, so if you haven’t yet read Robinson, of if you’ve read everything but this, or if you’ve read this and need bookish people with whom to share your thoughts on it, send me an email to gplbooks[at]gmail[dot]com and I’ll give you the details for our June meeting and make sure you get a copy of the book reserved.

Housekeeping is available now at GPL.

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