Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

newyork 1983

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for ages. I adored Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy of novels, which are the most beautiful, lyrical, heartrending pieces of prose I’ve ever read, and I had been saving up Housekeeping as a special treat. I’ve been finding it quite difficult to read lately, which is a strange experience for me; I think my mind has often been too full of other things to be able to allow myself to detach from my own existence. Therefore, I plucked Housekeeping off the shelf a couple of weeks ago in the hope that it would reinvigorate my imagination. As I expected, I was met with absolutely exquisite writing, but unfortunately, I found I couldn’t connect with the characters or their stories at all. Unlike the Gilead novels, all of which have very strong narrative voices, Housekeeping‘s narrative voice is much less well-defined and the characters, I thought, were rather undeveloped, which made it difficult to understand and believe their actions. In many ways, the novel’s setting is the main character, and I suppose it could be argued that the human characters are not particularly well drawn because they are periphery to their location. They are shadowy, rather powerless figures, acted upon by the pervasive influence of the haunting lake at the heart of the eerie, sprawling town of Fingerbone, and lost amidst the whisperings of the past that float in the air above this town that is both beautiful and destructive. As one would expect of Robinson, it all feels rather Biblical; the town is regularly flooded, at its heart is a lake that seems to harbour sin and temptation (the train buried in its depths is perhaps a metaphor for the destructive powers of modernity, namely industrialisation and materialism, on the human psyche) and the main character, Ruth, embodies the unquestioning devotion and self sacrifice of her Biblical namesake, following those she loves without a thought for her own desires. Overall, it is a strange, unsettling tale and I really wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

The essential story at the heart of the novel is that of Ruth and her sister Lucille, whose mother, Helen, leaves them at their grandmother’s house in the rural, lakeside town of Fingerbone before driving her car into the lake for no known reason. This is a tragedy that is not without precursor in the family; Helen’s father was drowned when his train plummeted off the bridge across Fingerbone’s enormous lake some decades previously. The train was never recovered, his body never found, and Helen’s mother was left to bring up her three daughters in the shadow of a legend that continues to haunt this small, sodden, poverty-stricken town of people who have had to grow too used to hardship. The girls’ grandmother, broken by the loss of all three daughters from a home that was never filled with anything but love and comfort, dies not long after Helen, and the girls are left to be brought up by Sylvie, Helen’s long-lost sister, who breezes back into Fingerbone after spending her adult life wandering away from her roots. Sylvie does not understand how to live a conventional life, and has no real wish to; she loves her nieces, but Lucille in particular is embarrassed by her strange behaviour and both girls are perpetually terrified that she will disappear again, wont as she is to sleep in her shoes. As the girls grow older, Sylvie’s inability to provide a normal home environment starts to push the sisters apart, with placid Ruth remaining loyal to her aunt while Lucille begins to view Sylvie with contempt as she strives to become like the other girls at school, who have ordinary mothers and fashionable clothes and enough money to go for milkshakes after school.

What is home? What is family? What are the ties that bind us to people and places, and what does it mean to leave them behind? Robinson asks all of these questions while writing a fluid and mesmerising vision of a waterlogged world filled with love and longing and sadness and frustration. I was impressed by the prose, and loved rolling Robinson’s words over my tongue, but there was something missing that made it quite an unsatisfying read. I think, ultimately, I didn’t care enough about any of the characters, and that made me feel disconnected from the events. I couldn’t become absorbed in the world created for me on the pages, and I was left feeling rather chilled and disturbed by the vision of Fingerbone and its people. Perhaps that was Robinson’s intention, but still. It didn’t sit well with me, somehow. I’m glad I read the Gilead trilogy first, because I’m not sure I would have tried Robinson again after reading Housekeeping. That would have been a great shame, as it would be hard to find more beauty, humanity and emotion in a book than you do in Gilead. If you’ve never read any Robinson, definitely start there first.

26 comments

  1. Rachel,

    Maybe it wasn’t the right time for you to read it? I have that often with books sadly. A second reading might make you feel differently. I read this book a few years ago and loved it. It still crosses my mind at times.

    Hope your ‘mojo’ returns with the reading. It’s common I think with everyday busyness to struggle sometimes to carve out enough time to concentrate on reading a book. Sure it will be back for you soon:)

    Best wishes
    Jane

    1. I’m hoping that it just wasn’t the right time for me to read it, Jane, because having loved her other novels so much, I was really surprised and disappointed that this one did nothing for me. Thank you – I hope it does too. I need my exam classes to go on study leave, the sun to come out and a nice deckchair set up in the garden for me to have a chance to actually relax and get some reading done!

  2. For ages after a pretty traumatic time I found I could only read the lightest of crime fiction. It was if my brain had been burnt. I was really beating myself up about this until I realised I was being – you’ll recognise the term – a book snob! So I relaxed and revelled in all that Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers. Wider horizons returned in time. The moral of the story: life is not an exam and no-one is giving you marks out of ten for what you read (or if they are, they have just identified themselves as people you no longer want to have anything to do with)

  3. I sometimes go through these periods of reading drought, Rachel. They always pass, in their own time and fashion. Yours will soon.
    I wondered about “Housekeeping”. I’ve wanted to read it as well, but, saw the movie long ago which was interesting but unsatisfying.

    1. Thanks Penny. I’m glad to know I’m not alone. I didn’t realise there was a film…I’d be very interested to know what they do with the novel, actually. I shall check it out!

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with your review of Housekeeping, and in fact still feel guilty about not revering it as much as did most of the writers in our advanced fiction workshop, where it was required reading. Based on that experience I’d decided to forego the Gilead trilogy, but after reading this I’ll give it a try. Sometimes I think we’re expected as writers and readers to feel a certain way about literary fiction, but as with anything it’s a subjective experience. Thank you for your honest review.

    1. Thanks Ellen – I’m glad to know I’m not alone. There is something very different about the Gilead books, in my opinion – a much more emotive tone and an engaging story. You must give them a try.

  5. It’s so disappointing when a favourite novel doesn’t quite reach the same power as the novels that came before. Especially when it comes to character development. I’m going to take your advice and start with Gilead – I’ve heard great things about the series.

  6. Haha … I remember you being very reproachful when I didn’t like it! It put me off trying her other books, but maybe you’re right and this isn’t the one to start with.

  7. I put off reading Robinson for years – based on reviews of Housekeeping, which made it sound as if a) she was difficult, and b) I wouldn’t like Housekeeping. Then, a couple of weeks ago I picked up Gilead in a charity shop, flicked through the pages and couldn’t put it down. I think it’s wonderful – as you say, one of he most beautiful, lyrical, heartrending novels I’ve read.

    1. I’m so glad you’ve picked up Gilead and are loving it! It’s such a marvellous book. And Home is fantastic too. I didn’t like Lila quite as much as the first two, but it’s still an extraordinary novel. You’re in for a treat!

  8. I agree: Gilead is definitely the place to start if you’re new to Marilynne Robinson. I loved Housekeeping for its prose (so many phrases that stick in my memory — perhaps most of all “gleaming rainbows in the rarer light”); but as a story, I’m not sure it holds together unless you read it almost as a fable?

  9. interested to see your point about lack of engagement with the characters. I know some people get turned off books because they don’t ‘like’ the characters. I don’t have that same compulsion to like or dislike but I do want to feel they are at least interesting. As you say if I don’t care for them then I can’t care for the book

    1. It’s hard to feel engaged with a novel if the characters do nothing for you, I find. I don’t mind if I don’t like them…I just need them to have something about them, and these characters just kind of hovered there, unformed. It was a shame!

  10. Something that bothered me about this novel was the deliberate absence of clues as to when it was supposed to take place, although some time between the wars would be my guess. She refers to ‘Goodnight Irene’ playing on the radio, so I decided to look that up, only to find that it was one of the most covered songs ever written (in 1891). So that wasn’t much help. Except …

    ‘Sometimes I have a great notion
    To jump into the river and drown …’

    The blueprint? I guess we’ll never know …

    1. Yes, it was all very vague…part of the plan, I’m sure, but it all just felt a bit too rootless and vague for my liking! Thanks for posting those song lyrics…I’d missed that. Very intriguing!

  11. Totally agree. I recently finally read Gilead and fell in love – and promptly started pushing it into the hands of every reader I knew who hadn’t read it yet. Then I picked up Housekeeping (while waiting for Home to arrive in the mail) expecting love and, well, I had the same feeling of disappointment as you did. I kept thinking that it was John Ames’ essential love of life and beauty of the world that made the difference between him and Ruth, who is indifferent to the world, as was Sylvie and Helen and all the rest of these women. It’s a shame, too, since I had hoped that we’d find that kind of lyrical praise for the world from a woman’s voice in Housekeeping, but no. I’m glad I read Gilead first, or I wouldn’t have picked it up after Housekeeping.

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