Housekeeping (1981)

by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping's title suggests it's about sweeping away dust bunnies and wiping up stains, but while keeping a house clean and well running does figure in the plot, "housekeeping" here means more: keeping a house, being rooted. Ruthie and Lucille live in the house their grandfather built in the Idaho town where the lake claimed him (a train accident) and their mother (a suicide). The latter had thoughtfully left them with their grandmother before she drove off a cliff into the lake. Their grandmother raises them conscientiously for five years until she dies. Then two dotty great-aunts give child rearing a try before calling in the girls' Aunt Sylvie.

Sylvie's eccentricities accumulate as the story progresses. She sleeps with her shoes on. She opens windows and lets leaves pile up in corners and bats fly in. She feeds the girls haphazardly. She is unfazed by their playing hooky from school. They figure out that Aunt Sylvie is a drifter — she hasn't had a house to keep. Ruthie, the narrator and the less self-defined of the two, is intrigued. Lucille is ashamed. She wants to be like other people. As the story unfolds, the girls take different paths in their response to Sylvie. Ruthie grows in self-awareness and spiritual depth even as she ends up — by choice — without a home. She is able to see and take advantage of the possibilities of an unconventional life.

Marilynne Robinson's writing is like poetry — lush and metaphoric. Her poetic meanderings can sometimes drift away from the plot lines for several pages, which might be irritating to readers who want to get on with it, but skipping the lyrical passages would be a loss.

This book about abandonment and survival, transience and tolerance, trying to find one's place in society — or not wanting to — received the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It would be another 23 years before Robinson published her second novel, Gilead, which did win the Pulitzer Prize. Despite the small production, Robinson is considered one of America's best writers.


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