Marilynne Robinson has been on my TBR list for decades, at least. When I was putting together my second Classics Club list, I dithered between Housekeeping, her debut novel, and Gilead, her unconnected follow-up. I ultimately settled on Housekeeping. I had little background on the book, and even fewer expectations, when I started.
This book is so beautifully written that the sadness is almost lost in the gorgeous prose. I gather from my research that Robinson was previously on the faculty at University of Iowa, and was part of the well-regarded Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Housekeeping is the story of a family – told from the perspective of Ruth – that has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. It begins with the death of Ruth’s grandfather in a spectacular train derailment into Fingerbone Lake off of the long railway bridge into the town of Fingerbone, where he and his wife, Sylvia, live in the home he built. Fingerbone is never situated on a map, but seems to correspond to Sandpoint, Idaho.
The timeframe is also not clearly identified – it feels like it is set in the 1940’s or 1950’s, but that may simply have been because the narrator, Ruthie, isn’t particularly interested in the trappings of modernity. Published in 1980, It seems likely that Ruthie would have been slightly older than I was, so she was probably born in around 1960, which would mean it is occurring in the 1970’s.
Aside from the beautiful writing, it is hard to say that I “liked” this novel. The tone is melancholy and almost elegiac. The actions of most of the women in the book who preceded Ruthie are inexplicable at best, indicative of serious mental health issues. Her mother, Helen, abandons her two girls, Ruthie and Lucille, to their grandmother and commits suicide by driving her car into the same lake that claimed her father. The lake looms large over the family, a reminder of tragedy that is inescapable.
Helen’s older sister, Molly, developed a religious fervor and disappears into China, presumably as a missionary. After Helen’s death, the girls are raised by their grandmother until her death.
After Sylvia dies, the youngest sister, Sylvie, returns to Fingerbone after being essentially a drifter for the years since she has left, and ends up as the caregiver for Ruth and Lucille, a job for which she is poorly equipped. The townspeople ignore the neglect and oddness of the behavior of the three until Lucille decides that she has had enough of the squalor and strangeness of their living situation and leaves to live with a teacher. This seems to breach the code of silence that the three of them have operating within and provides a glimpse to the rest of the community about how things really are in the old, crumbling house within an orchard inhabited by the strange aunt and her two odd school-aged nieces.
The title of the book comes from Sylvie’s increasingly frenetic behavior to try to stave off the removal of Ruthie from her car. Her “housekeeping” before intervention consisted of piling up newspapers and cans in what was previously the parlor of the home:
The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that room a parlor, since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobsebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers – things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she consider accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.
Ruth speaks of the conditions in which she is living with no insight to their strangeness. Ultimately, the actions of the Sheriff and well-meaning townspeople lead to far reaching consequences, Sylvie’s attempts to align Ruth’s living conditions with the expectations of the community being inadequate to stop the proceedings that have already begun.
In the same way I’m not sure how I feel about the book, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.