Housekeeping: A Novel


I know it's not fair, that it goes against every rule of responsible writing on books and literature, to evaluate a novel based on the author's other works. How much less fair to evaluate a first novel on the merits of an author's subsequent works, when one has chosen to read them out of order? Totally, completely unfair. Nevertheless, I can't honestly talk about my reaction to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping without getting this out of my system: gorgeous, limpidly written it may be, but it's no Gilead.

Nor is it supposed to be, after all. Whereas Robinson's second novel, published twenty-four years after her first, is an intimate, perfectly-pitched character study of a man at the end of his life, looking back with mellow pain and pleasure at the family legacy he is leaving to his young son, her earlier work features a pair of sisters who were given no such guiding light by their parents. What touched me so deeply about Gilead, what puts it on my top-twenty list of all time, is the tangible, rooted reality of the Reverend John Ames. But Housekeeping is not about age, and it's not about the tangible. Instead it's about the transient, and loss, and the brittle no-man's-land of an adolescence saturated in death. Although both novels are written in the first person, the voice of Housekeeping's protagonist Ruthie is distant, almost cold, functioning always at a remove from the reader, which is a stark contrast from Ames's intimate warmth. Ruthie's distance makes sense within the novel: abandoned by their suicidal mother at a young age, she and her sister Lucille are raised by a series of relatives, ending up finally in an uneasy guardian/ward relationship with their formerly-transient aunt Sylvie, who they expect, both because of their own history and her character, to abandon them at any moment. As the three women drift forward in time, Lucille makes a conscious decision to leave Sylvie and rejoin "normal" society, whereas Ruthie is more torn.

If I were to pick one adjective to describe this book, it might be "haunted." All three main characters seem beset: sometimes by fading memories, sometimes by nagging desires, sometimes by a nameless lack they can't place. This doesn't come across as teenage ennui, but rather as the result of an early life divorced from security, with no fixed "place" any character can call her own and no fixed path to which Ruthie, at least, feels dedicated. One of the most poignant questions I heard the book asking was whether one ought to seek aggressively for that missing sense of rooted place, or whether, on the contrary, it is better to become comfortable with the essential rootlessness of life. A recurring image, of being on either side of a lighted window in the night-time, was both one of the most charged and one of the most beautiful metaphors in this gorgeously-written book.

Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers. [...] [B]y crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roofs and sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face. She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat. The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout. When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her shadow sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge.

Again and again, Robinson presents the interior lighted spaces as those of the "haves" and belonging, and the dark exterior spaces as those of the "have-nots," the transients on the periphery of so-called respectable life. Sylvie, who loves to sit in the dusky interior of her mother's house without turning on the lights, relishes the blurring of boundaries, the melding of dark interior with dark exterior, the "even-ing" time when possession status is unclear and a house's interior can be "sunk in the very element is was meant to exclude." Lucille, on the other hand, seeks to build up more and ever more clarity of boundaries, wanting the lights to blaze against the darkness so that she will be reassured about which side of the divide she occupies. Sylvie's drifting, unmoored character is unnerving, even offensive to her.

I knew what the silence meant, and so did Lucille. It meant that on an evening so calm, so iridescently blue, so full of the chink and chafe of insects and fat old dogs dragging their chains and belling in the neighbors' dooryards—in such a boundless and luminous evening, we would feel our proximity with our finer senses. As, for example, one of two, lying still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake.
       We sat listening to the rasp of the knife as Sylvie buttered and stacked the toast, bumping our heels with a soft, slow rhythm against the legs of our chairs, staring through the warped and bubbled window at the brighter darkness. Then Lucille began to scratch fiercely at her arms and her knees. "I must have got into something," she said, and she stood up and pulled the chain of the overhead light. The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness.

All of this is what is compelling about Housekeeping: its gorgeously-formed prose, its thoughtful metaphors, its tone which fits so well to the otherworldly characters of Sylvie and Ruthie. So why doesn't it live up to my expectations, brilliant as it often is?

For me, although Robinson had obviously already honed her writing chops on the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the larger narrative in Housekeeping seems a bit loose, a bit wandering. All that skilled craft seems like liquid without a container, running this way and that over any surface it encounters, in need of some kind of funnel or chute to concentrate it into a sustained narrative. Had it been more concentrated, more directed, the characters and town might have sprung more to life, and I would have believed more fully in their existence. It occurs to me that this could have been intentional: theoretically, a thinner, more wandering narrative style is a great fit for Robinson's themes of vagrancy, liminal spaces, and existential uncertainty. The book itself is waif-like, haunted, hard to pin down, like Sylvie in her rootless wanderings, like Ruthie in her attempts to see without being seen. It's a dweller in the dark exterior, not in the blazing interior. In practice, though, I didn't think the treatment lived up to its potential, and my whole time reading this I was torn between marveling at the beautiful prose and asking myself why I wasn't more caught up, more involved.

I know I've done a poor job at evaluating Housekeeping on its own merits, and I feel vaguely guilty about that. There were flashes of the grounded, wry, tightly yet seemingly effortlessly-controlled brilliance of Gilead: I caught a whiff, for example, of Ames's quiet, biblically-inflected sense of humor when Ruthie imagines her grandmother returning from the dead to "scan the shores to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho." Overall I was, perhaps unreasonably, disappointed, and now feel a little bit sad that I've read all three of Robinson's novels to date. To assuage those feelings of sadness, here is one last paragraph to speed me on my way.

Of course I knew that [the sheriff's] function was more than ceremonial. The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.


  • I read Gilead first, and then Housekeeping, and I couldn't help but respond the way you did -- I found it good, but not up to the level of Gilead. I do wonder what I would have thought if I had read the books in the opposite order. Impossible to know, though!

  • Right I will remember to read them in order so I get a lovely progression rather than a bit of a dip. Lovely passages quoted there.

  • I haven't read any Robinson yet, but I'm intrigued by your assessment of this one. The excerpts are lovely.

    Surely it's OK to read an author's best work first as it's the one that will be most likely to inspire you to pursue their other works?

  • I think you did a fine job discussion the novel. I read years and years ago (early 90s) when there was no other Robinson book in sight. Loved it. Back then it seemed so odd and different and sad and I found it rather compelling. I have not read the rest of Robinson's books even though I have them. I don't know why I haven't. I think before I do read the others though that I will reread Housekeeping.

  • I read Housekeeping many years ago and loved it, and have re-read it a couple of times. But for me, Gilead paled. I actually couldn't finish it. I've seen both books discussed a number of places where people had the same kind of "loved one, not the other"--either they loved Housekeeping but not Gilead, or vice versa.

  • Oh no.. I was planning to read this because I loved Gilead so much, too. But you did such a great job of pinpointing what didn't work for you. Your phrase: "liquid without a container" reminds me of Per Petersson's To Siberia. It, too, was waif-like.

    Would you say it worthwhile to read Home after having read Gilead? I still want to read Housekeeping, though, but because of how you describe it maybe not anytime soon. Want to read more of her (as a reserve) but then also want to prioritize better reads.

  • This is the only Robinson I have read and I really didn't like it. It was so hard for me to get through such a short book. It put me off reading anything else by her.

  • Great review. I've only just finished Gilead (it was unknown to me and selected by a fellow book clubber). I found it a difficult read at first until more than half way through when I 'got it'. Thus I turned back to page 1 upon finishing the last to fully experience the magnificence that I'd missed on first reading. Of course now I'm itching to read Home.

    I'd not given much thought to Housekeeping but will definitely give it a crack thanks to your forewarning of difference in comparison. I like your descriptions of the beauty you did find in the novel and I think it warrants a visit.

  • Gilead is also in my top-twenty of all times. I adore it with a passion, and I liked Home a lot as well (in some ways more than Gilead, although overall it's Gilead that gets my passionate devotion). I'm holding off on reading Housekeeping for when I'm definitely in the mood for Robinson, but it is helpful to know that it's not quite Gilead. From your description, though, it still sounds like a fine novel.

  • Based on your wonderful post-I will read for sure Gilead and then decide on Housekeeping-thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book.

  • Dorothy: I know, I wish I'd read them in the order they came out. Although, who knows - would I have read Gilead if my only experience of Robinson had been Housekeeping? It really is hard to play the what-if game.

    Jodie: The writing is undeniably gorgeous in all three Robinson books I've read. I'd definitely recommend reading Housekeeping first if you've already decided to read all three!

  • Marieke: Oh, of course there's nothing wrong with reading in whatever order you want...I just feel like it's unfair to write a piece blasting an earlier work if it's not as good as a later one. But Gilead informed so much of my response to this one, I couldn't really avoid it. :-(

    Stefanie: We have such similar tastes; I feel like I'm getting a glimpse of how I would have responded had I read Housekeeping before Gilead. I'd love to hear your thoughts on her other two.

  • Amy: Really?? That's so interesting. I would have gone out on a limb and said that Housekeeping is objectively not as good a book as Gilead - but now you're making me re-think that. In any case, I know Housekeeping has its fervent fans, which makes me happy. I kept wishing I could have been one, but didn't quite make it there.

    Claire: YES, read Home! I know some people were disappointed to find the "same story" written differently, but in my opinion they are VERY different books. Just the difference in theology between the Ames & Boughton families would be enough to captivate me. I strongly recommend Home if you loved Gilead.

  • Thomas: Personally, I would recommend giving Gilead a try. I can understand your reaction to Housekeeping & felt that Gilead was much more gripping, albeit in a quiet, understated way.

    Margaret: Yes, there is so much beauty in the book, which I think is why I felt frustrated with myself for not connecting with it more. But it's short, and lovely, and I would be curious about your thoughts on it, since you just finished Gilead (glad to hear it clicked for you in the end!).

  • Teresa: This part of your comment:

    I liked Home a lot as well (in some ways more than Gilead, although overall it's Gilead that gets my passionate devotion).

    articulates my feelings about those two novels perfectly. I am torn about which one I think is "better," but Gilead is the one that makes my bookish heart swoon. :-) Housekeeping is far from a waste of time - you have some lovely prose to look forward to.

    Mel U: Thanks for dropping by! I hope you enjoy Gilead - I thought it was magical.

  • The irony in sharing your very honest appraisal with us, Emily, is that you are no doubt encouraging those of us who only want to try one Robinson to follow in the same out-of-sequence path as you did yourself and start with Gilead. You can't really win, can you? Always interesting to note the difference between writers and filmmakers and musicians (at least rock bands): in my experience at least, most bands seem to produce their best work early on and then taper off
    while writers and filmmakers often improve with age. For whatever that's worth...

  • Richard: I know, I thought of that, too! I truly can't win. But really, if I convince more people to go read Gilead, I won't complain too loudly about that. :-) I think the rockstar/author divide may have to do with, uh, lifestyle choices. Except in the case of Bukowski; I can't explain that one.

  • Well I certainly wouldn't say you did a poor job, for your own piece is a gorgeously-written prose :)

    And indeed, those passages you quoted are just gorgeous! You know I can enjoy a book just for its writing and sometimes I can just forget about the depth or realism of its characters. So I don't know, maybe I'd try one of Robinson's works one time just so I can indulge in beautiful prose. Thank you for this review!

    By the way, 24 years is a long time. I guess it proves that writers grow :)

  • Mark David: 24 years IS a long time, definitely! She had been writing nonfiction in between the two novels, and apparently it really helped her get focus. You should definitely check out Gilead, if not all her stuff - it's way more than just beautiful prose. And thanks for the nice words. :-)

  • "All that skilled craft seems like liquid without a container, running this way and that over any surface it encounters, in need of some kind of funnel or chute to concentrate it into a sustained narrative."

    What? You think you did a poor job evaluating this book and you write sentences like that?

    Even if you didn't enjoy Housekeeping your review is still making me want to read it!

  • As a reader, I can't help comparing an author's books against their other ones. :) I've realised that, and nowadays when I'm trying a new author, I try to start with their first published work, so that I'm reading their stuff in the order it was written. I think it's made getting to know some of my new favourite authors extra fun, but sometimes I still cheat. ;)

  • EL Fay: Ha, thanks for the compliment. :-) I really did enjoy it, that's the problem - just not as much as I anticipated based on her other stuff, which is kind of a silly complaint. But in any case, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Housekeeping if/when you pick it up!

    Eva: I know, that's a great idea, and one that I think I'll try to keep in mind. The difficult thing is always knowing how much I'll like an author's stuff ahead of time - in lots of cases, starting with the most well-known is a good idea since that's the only one I'll ever get around to, or else it genuinely IS better & will convince me to read more, whereas a lesser work wouldn't. What a dilemma! ;-)

  • Yes, I agree with you that Gilead is a better novel than Housekeeping. I've read all three of Robinson's novels and admired them all but Gilead is the only one I will re-read again and again.

  • Well, I'm going to side with Amy on this one. I read all three in order and loved Housekeeping. I did not love Gilead, but I did enjoy Home. Reading is so subjective. Another articulate review by you, though, Emily.

  • Gilead was beautiful but I have not read Housekeeping. It's good to know that it's different and what expectations to take into it. Excellent review!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography