Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Housekeeping

Housekeeping Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We’re told late in this short novel that, “For Sylvie, the essence of housekeeping was accumulation.” And yet Sylvie, the often befuddled aunt who has returned to try to keep her sister’s children together, can never really accumulate anything. That’s true in the small ways that she would always prefer to hop a train and go somewhere new and surprising, leaving her old things and retrieving new. It’s also true in the larger ways that she loses just about everyone in her life: father, mother, sisters, husband and, potentially, nieces.

In contrast to an idea of housekeeping as accumulation, we have an idea of it as about order or “orderliness.” There are the other women in town – and the conventions of beauty and propriety that seduce the younger niece Lucille – who push against the haphazard and simple joys that Sylvie tries to share with Ruth. Sylvie gets looked at and talked about. If half her nature is to flee the demands of housekeeping altogether, and if so many insist that housekeeping is different from her understanding, it starts to feel like slow-burn heroism to keep the house and persist in caring for Ruth.

We get the novel through Ruth’s eyes, yet I think our “protagonist” is really an impulse that runs through the generations. This is three generations of women, all gently mad, who push to keep together a house that was a kind of wild dream in the first place, handmade as it was by the semi-mythical grandfather. Very little “happens” in the heart of the novel (though it’s framed by dramatic events at the start and the finish), and I think that’s part of its deeper point. The smallness of the novel (in length) is just one more subtle shading of what’s at stake. This house is a fragile, probably impossible dream, handed down from one woman to another. It never has the chance to accumulate much – and much of what’s in the novel comes to us as memory, as something lost and then retrieved.

I understand that many declare this a “modern classic,” and I certainly like and admire it. That said, it seems to me to fall short of the Gilead trilogy which explores similar themes of “Home” (the title of the middle novel) but then wraps them around an attempt at recovering the great Protestant theology that underlay so much of the settling of middle America. If this falls short to me, though, I can’t help wondering how much of that is due to my necessarily reading as a man. The effort, the impulse, and even the aesthetic that works here is quiet in what I think is a deeply feminine way. I offer that not as criticism of the novel, but of me. I get the impression this novel has a lot to teach me and, even as I enjoy it, I feel a kind of quiet appreciation for it as a result.

And then, of course, there is Robinson’s flat-out mastery of prose. There are probably a hundred sentences I might single out for praise, but one early one just grabbed me: “The wind that billowed the sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary.” If I’d written that one sentence, I think I’d feel pretty good about myself. Imagine what it’s like to write a full novel. So what if this is only Robinson’s fourth best novel; it’s still an extraordinary work by the woman who is very likely the greatest American novelist at work today.

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