I finished reading Housekeeping (by Marilynne Robinson, 1980) several days ago. I haven’t posted a reaction until now, though, because this book, though short, takes some time to settle on a person. It’s a simple enough story: two young sisters are raised by three different female generations of their family, as each successively leaves them (by death and by desertion). It’s Robinson’s telling of this simple story that takes some time to settle; she explores themes of death, desertion, loneliness, and housekeeping in long, slow paragraphs.
For example, consider this passage, from the end of the novel:
“We are nowhere in Boston…. We pause nowhere in Boston, even to admire a store window, and the perimeters of our wandering are nowhere. No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.”
In reading this book, I was reminded strongly of the novel The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Both The Shipping News and Housekeeping manage to color the landscapes of their novels in grays and whites with their pacing and their bleakness of storytelling. It’s hard to imagine anything in Housekeeping crackling with excitement; the characters are insular, isolated, and introspective. So much of the action in Housekeeping takes place in the past that it’s only in the retelling by the narrator, one of the sisters, that it’s action at all. Yet all of the action of the past has enormous bearing on the present.
I enjoyed the way that Robinson made the landscape into a central character in this novel; the lake, on the shores of which is the town where the girls grew up, is a central part of the action in the novel. The lake itself contributed to each major change in the lives of the two young sisters, directly or indirectly.
This book manages to be both gripping (in the sense that I wanted to find out what happens) and so slow-paced that I thought it was never going to end.