The Housekeeper and the Professor

housekeeper and professorFor some reason, I thought this book was going to be sentimental. To be fair, when you summarize the plot, it sounds like that sort of book. But my friend Laura recommended it to me, and she’s not one for sappy stuff. I should have known better. And as it turns out, this book is gentle and kind, but never less than real about our lives together in a world that is passing away.

The housekeeper (never named) comes to work for a retired mathematics professor through a cleaning service. She isn’t given much information, just the essentials: she’s to work certain hours each day, and she isn’t to trouble the employer, who lives in the main house. And one more thing: the professor was in a car accident in 1975, and now his memory lasts no longer than eighty minutes. When the housekeeper first meets the professor, he says, “What’s your shoe size?” She tells him, and he expatiates on the mathematical importance of it. And their relationship begins.

This book is about creating and navigating a relationship between two (and eventually three — the housekeeper’s son, Root, tags along) people who have nothing in common. Most books or movies that go that route tend to give those people adventures together, that build a bond — they make memories and become “found family.” But what if you had an adventure or a wonderful experience together, and one of the members of your found family forgot the bond after eighty minutes, didn’t recognize any of you, and had to begin again? How do you create a relationship then?

The professor is a kind and courteous man. He especially loves children, and his concern for ten-year-old Root is touching. His world has shrunk to the walls of his cottage and his eighty-minute memory, but his mind ranges among the infinity of numbers: he understands theorems that the housekeeper and Root can’t hope to grasp. Still, he’s a born teacher, and he frequently offers them facts about primes, factorials, amicable numbers, and many other lines out of (as he puts it) God’s notebook.

For her part, the housekeeper respects and cares for the professor. She cooks and cleans, trying to think of what would make him comfortable, even though he doesn’t seem to care much for externals. She listens to his talk about math, and responds as well as she can, even going to the library to learn more. And she has the benefit of memory, so she can understand the hints she begins to see of the professor’s history before 1975.

There’s so much more to this book that I haven’t mentioned — baseball (a most mathematical game), the care of children, the balance between the ephemeral and the eternal. This book feels light, but it has real weight. It’s wistful, but never depressing. I see that Yoko Ogawa is a very popular author in Japan — I would love to read more of her work.

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6 Responses to The Housekeeper and the Professor

  1. realthog says:

    I’ve had this one on my pile for way too long, and really must try to get to it soon. Thanks for a very tantalizing account of it — I’d forgotten why I’d bought the book, and you’ve more than reminded me.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t know anything about it before my friend recommended it to me! It was really beautiful, though I don’t think I’ve done it justice here. The sense of the ephemeral in this book was very tender and lovely.

  2. This does sound lovely – thank you for reviewing it and bringing it to my attention!

    • Jenny says:

      I thought there would be a lot of people responding and saying they had read it, but it doesn’t look like it! I hope you pick it up. It’s a quick read, but very much worth it.

  3. lbloxham says:

    Thank you for this review. You know I love, love, love this book.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad you mentioned it to me, Laura. My aunt gave it to Miranda for Christmas, and I promptly stole it and read it. It made me so happy.

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