Review by Christopher J. Lee
Housekeeping. By Marilynne Robinson. 219 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Marilynne Robinson is an American author recognized for her examinations of religion and humankind. She has written both fiction and nonfiction and is best known for her first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, and the Pulitzer-prize winning Gilead, published in 2004.
The novel Housekeeping is told from the first-person point of view of a young girl named Ruth Stone who lives in a town called Fingerbone. Ruth’s family is the central focus of the novel, as we gain a deeper insight into her family history. Many different family members enter her life to care for her, including her grandmother, her great-aunts, and eventually, one of the main supporting characters, her aunt Sylvie. Just as importantly, it is the family members who are not present in the story that loom larger in Ruth’s life rather than the ones who take care of her. Their absences are a departure from a normal upbringing and are reminders to Ruth of what could have been.
Many of the pages of the novel are also spent with Ruth’s younger sister, Lucile, who grows up with her. Robinson uses Lucile as a direct juxtaposition to her sister; as Lucile ages and begins to break away from the family, the more she sees the ways in which her upbringing and caretakers are not like the rest of the more standard, stereotypical town of Fingerbone.
This is primarily what the novel thematically centers around and it does not deviate from this very much. This is not necessarily a negative aspect; for much of the novel, one doesn’t feel as though they are reading a boring, conventional tale. This is due in large part to the careful attention to detail Robinson pays to the little things. Ruth herself is not a particularly interesting or active character, but this is clearly intentional. Characters such as Lucile are given the majority of character development, and Ruth is simply the eyes from which the audience watches.
This is only effective because Lucile, Sylvie, and the world of Fingerbone are built up in such a way that it feels believable, yet just different and unique enough that it remains intriguing to a reader. Because of this, the novel takes its time, which can make it read more slowly than most novels. Often, it feels warranted, deserved; but there are moments where the novel seems to drag a bit.
On that note, the ending doesn’t necessarily feel as satisfying as most conventional story endings are. This is because the novel doesn’t concern itself with a dramatic build towards a riveting, high-energy finish. There are peaks, there are highs, lows, and there is definitely a turning point. But the ending, punctuated by a choice that should have felt more decisive and impactful than it does, suffers in part because the stakes remained relatively low throughout. For some, this may not be perceived as a negative. For me, it felt as though there was something missing as I finished the novel, though as I reflect on my overall reading experience, I can understand why Robinson would end the novel in this way.
However, the main draw of the novel lies not in its plot, but in its descriptive potential and execution. There’s a passage at the beginning of the sixth chapter in which the perspective seems to shift away from the close first-person POV of Ruth to a more omniscient narrator. The narration begins to delve into hypothetical scenarios and enters an almost dream-like state, imagining alternate lifetimes that are just out of reach for the main characters. Ruth imagines a different life, a happier life, and all of a sudden, we are looking at different events transpiring as Ruth and her sister ponder what could have been. It’s wonderfully strange, and it feels as though it’s a part of a different novel altogether, yet ties in seamlessly with Housekeeping.
Housekeeping is a novel that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. It’s often very deliberate, the plot doesn’t necessarily go many places, and the main protagonist, Ruth, is not nearly the most interesting character in the novel. Yet, it manages to captivate the reader’s attention for the vast majority of the novel. This coming-of-age novel shows the subtleties of being torn between two worlds and the complexities of having to choose between what society expects of you and where you feel you are being called. The intricate details, the nuanced character work, especially with characters like Lucile, and the care given to the world are what create a rather compelling novel from seemingly more mundane elements.
Author bio sourced from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marilynne-Robinson