Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson — 219 pgs

Housekeeping is the tale of sisters Helen, Sylvie and Molly, and their mother, who lost her somewhat guileless husband when the train he was working on derailed and plunged into one of the great lakes of Fingerbone. After raising her daughters in a quiet and workaday way after the death of her husband, all three girls left home to find their fortune far from their mother and the crippled old town. Now Helen has returned out of the blue to deposit her daughters, Lucille and  Ruthie, on her mother’s doorstep before driving her car into the same lake that claimed her father. The girls are initially raised with care by their elderly grandmother, but too soon, she passes away one night in her sleep, and two maiden great-aunts are called in to come  take over the task of overseeing the girls. The duo of aunts are not cut out for raising children and come to dread the task, as it makes them increasingly nervous and upset, so when they hatch the idea for Sylvie to come home and look after Ruthie and Lucille, they are very pleased with themselves. But the problem is that Sylvie is a transient and hasn’t been back to Fingerbone in many years. Complicating matters intensely, there’s the possibility that she may be slightly mentally ill. When she arrives to take charge of her young nieces, the elderly aunts soon disappear, and life goes from confusing to scary for the little girls who know nothing about what will come. Though at first things are fine, Sylvie begins to display some alarming tendencies, and although she loves the girls, she cannot seem to maintain a stable home or routine for them. In her attempts to feed, clothe and protect the girls, Sylvie shows herself to be more than eccentric, and it seems she’s never quite able to leave behind her transient ways. But when one of the girls runs off and the other is threatened with removal from the home, Sylvie begins to go to great lengths to improve things. Will her efforts be enough to keep the small family together, or will her dangerous plot only serve to finally destroy the remains of the family that Ruthie and Lucille depend on?  Both emotionally minimalistic and crowdingly complicated, Housekeeping presents drama and tension on the small scale, in the story of a wayward family in need of exceptional help.

This is the second selection of the Books, Babe’s and Bordeaux book club, and the reason that we chose it was because Tatjana Soli pinpointed it as one of her favorite books when we hosted her for an author discussion during our previous meeting. I must say that I was excited by the choice and had high hopes for this book after having read and loved her later book, Home. I discovered that this was actually Robinson’s first book, and while I thought that the ideas that it presented were very interesting, there was something about the execution of the book that left me feeling a little cold.

First of all, I must say that there was a curious lack of emotional cohesion in this story. Things were going on that had emotional weight and importance, yet the lack of feeling in the writing made the story feel almost clinical. I never was able to get close to the characters because of the lack of empathy in the writing. From reading the summary paragraph above, you would imagine that this book would be fraught with emotion and feeling, but curiously, it was utterly devoid of these emotions. It all felt very stale, like Robinson was writing case notes on a difficult psychological case. There was no spark and life in the story she told, leaving me to wonder if reading this book was going to be a pointless exercise in itself. I never felt that I really knew any of the characters and how they were feeling. Sure they did things, and oftentimes those things were bizarre and uncomfortable, but I never felt I knew the reason why they did these things, or how they felt about them.

I also got a feeling of intense claustrophobia when reading this book, and I can’t exactly explain why. Everything was so dense, from the writing to the way the family lived to the outcome of the situations portrayed, and it all made me feel like I was in a closed little box with little air. It was not a fun experience, and I began to dread having to sit down with it again and again. Everything was so crammed within the story and there was little room for light or easy and uncomplicated emotion. When a book is so filled with portent, it begins to feel too ponderous to handle, and though I do sometimes enjoy these types of books, I felt that this one was overly filled with a type of darkness and murkiness that I didn’t understand or enjoy. At times the tale attempted lightness, but because of all the weight that was dragging the story down, I couldn’t buy into it. Now that I think on it, I realize my reaction to this book is one of hopelessness due to the depression and subdued anxiety that tried to disguise itself as something else. What that something else is, I never quite understood.

Not a lot happens in this book. It’s more of a character study of the people who populate the pages. In Sylvie, Robinson has created a domestically and mentally challenged individual who has no business raising children. In the young girls, she’s created a repository for all the worry and anxiety that both the reader and Sylvie harbor towards the act of successfully raising them. It was a worrisome book that felt very slow and uneventful, and it had the quality of one moving slowly underwater, which, interestingly enough, is one of the things that was portrayed in the plot. Where the book strived to be deep and meaningful, I only found that it was maudlin and overwhelming, and where there was a brief bit of hope, it was always quickly extinguished. This was a book that surged in ebbs and flows of disappointment and strangeness, and I was never able to find my reading groove with it because reading it made me feel overcome with desperation. This is not a book that I would feel comfortable recommending, and I would tend to think that it’s only necessary for completists. Definitely not a favorite.

23 comments:

Beth F said...

Humm. I've been very curious about this book and have wanted to read it because I generally like character studies. But I wonder if I'd get bogged down in the density.

Harvee Lau said...

Too bad there was no spark in the book as you read it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

Ok, now I'm second-guessing my audio find in the bargain bin last week, LOL. I'll give it a try and remember that it will be ok to stop if I just can't get into it. I'm not a completist ;-) Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, Heather.

Darlene said...

Sorry this one wasn't the best for you. I've always been curious about this author. I have one of her books on my shelf but haven't read it yet.

Lindsey said...

I can relate to your feeling of claustrophobia while reading this book. I felt similarly. I think it has to do with the way that Robinson portrays this town and this family. It is suffocating for the characters and for us as a result.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wow, this sounds like a hugely dysfunctional family! Great review - I think I'll let your reading experience suffice! :--)

Audra said...

This was a great review -- you captured the feel of reading it so beautiful -- I feel like reading Doris Lessing is a bit like this -- very claustrophobic. I own this, I'm pretty sure, but I might pass on it. It'd be my first Robinson and maybe I should start on something else instead...

Trisha said...

Reading your first paragraph my initial thought was: wow, that's a lot going on.... Looks like my thought on that was correct and the complicated plot line wasn't handled well. Too bad.

Suko said...

Thank you for your honest review. I think I'd find the heaviness of the book quite unsettling.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I did NOT like this book! At all!

bermudaonion said...

Probably not for me - I love great characters, but I've GOT to have plot to go along with them. I also need emotion in my writing.

Brooke said...

I have this book on my shelves as part of TIME magazine's 100 greatest novels since 1923. I'm reading this list because the books on it are super challenging for me and this one sounds particularly difficult to get through. This list also houses many books that critics love, but readers loathe. I feel like that is the main criteria for inclusion! Great review, Heather!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I so looked forward to this book, and when I finally started it, I chose the audio version -- found it pretty depressing. Sorry it did not work for you.

softdrink said...

Oddly enough, I just read nomadreader's post on a different Robinson book (Gilead) and my comment there was that this book (Housekeeping) was the only Robinson I'd ever tried. I never made it past the first chapter. Sounds like I didn't miss much. :-D

gene bernice said...

Thanks for sharing your ideas. Im curious to read this book.


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Ana @ things mean a lot said...

What you say about the book's sense of claustrophobic actually intrigues me, even though I can certainty see why it wasn't a winner for you. I have yet to try anything by Robinson, but she sounds like the kind of author I'd need to be in the right mood to enjoy.

Ti said...

I read that synopsis and thought, "Wow!! I need to read this." And then I read your thoughts and said, "No. I don't think so!"

I can't imagine how a book so full of despair can be completely devoid of emotion. I mean, what's the point of it? Usually when someone tells you a story the goal is to have the reader react to something within it or to gain some purposeful bit of understanding but the clinical aspect you mentioned totally turns me off.

Jenny said...

My book club just got through reading this, and I didn't care for it either. One of my book club members told me that Marilynne Robinson wrote this book basically because she had a lot of awesome metaphors written down in her ideas notebooks, and she felt like there were enough of them to make a book. Which is exactly what it felt like, and exactly what I don't want in my darn books. :/

Lisa said...

Strange that there is such a lack of emotional connection - very unusual for Robinson. Evidently something that she mastered before "Home" and "Gilead."

Jenny said...

Wow, I'm glad to read your thoughts because this does seem like one of those books that I should read and now I'm thinking it's definitely not worth it! I have WAY too much else to read!

Vasilly said...

Ugh. Too bad this book was such a disappointment. I have it on my reading list and will probably still give it a try, but I'm going to remember everything you've wrote about it.

Jenners said...

It does seem like a novel that would be full of emotion -- bursting with it. So to hear it is cold and clinical is a big surprise. Too bad it didn't live up to your hopes.

Buried In Print said...

I quite admire what she accomplished in this novel, and I still vividly remember some of the feelings that I had while reading it (more than 10 years ago now), but I agree that it's not a comfortable story. Funnily enough, I have never made it past the first few pages of Home, but I keep meaning to try again...

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