Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Housekeeping (#1)

Housekeeping.

#1: HOUSEKEEPING, Marilynne Robinson.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels, and this one, which was my favorite from the year. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

Oh, THIS book. This, the most beautiful thing I read all year.

Housekeeping, published in 1980 and distinguished as a Pulitzer finalist, was assigned to me by our church book club. I didn’t know what to expect, but having read Gilead a few months before, I figured I would like it. I had no idea how much I was going to love it, though. I read the book feverishly, swiftly, tearing through 100 pages in a little less than an hour, and yet, somehow, I took everything in; every word was absorbed. You have to understand how unusual this is for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to read too quickly, to skim over sentences like a fly over water. But Marilynne Robinson has this unparalleled ability to make me slow down. Not even my favorite poets can make me slow down as much as she can. This gradual consumption of the book, slower than I have read anything all year, contributed greatly to my deep appreciation of it.

When I arrived at the book club discussion, my brain swimming with delight over this novel, my eyes almost fell out of my head when I heard that the majority of the group hated the book. “I didn’t GET it; I don’t like any of these people; they’re so creepy and lonely; they need to get some mental help; I hated it so much, etc., etc.” I think I just gaped at them. Celeste, whose person and taste I admire, despised it and when she said she did, it actually hurt my feelings; I felt physically injured. She was totally rational in her expression of dislike, but my attachment to this book was so strong that to me, it sounded like she’d just insulted my grandmother, the salt of the earth. I flushed and said something rash and stupid in defense of the book, in defense of Robinson, and in defense of Ruth.

Ruth is our lonely and mysterious narrator. We learn that she comes from a long line of solitary, ruminating women, women who don’t say much, women who don’t spend time with men. (In fact, there is scarcely a man in the entire novel; they are either dead or peripheral.) Ruth has moved to Fingerbone, Wisconsin, with her sister, Lucille, to live with their maternal grandmother in the aftermath of their mother’s suicide. They are shuffled between their grandmother and two unhelpful, worrisome great aunts until their mother’s sister Sylvie shows up.

Sylvie is a drifter. She is unaccustomed to household living, to cooking, to wearing appropriate clothes. When we meet her, we understand the irony of the title, for none of these women are any good at housekeeping. Sylvie cares for the girls in a detached, dreamy way, which maddens Lucille but enchants Ruth. In time, we start to see Sylvie and Ruth as mirrors of each other.

Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson writes like a poet, like a person who has spent much time in thought. Her sentences are careful and beautiful. Housekeeping, she has said, was based on a series of metaphors she wrote while studying for her English Ph.D., as she was largely inspired by American transcendentalists. Her thoughtfulness is evident in every line. In that interview with the Paris Review, she speaks to the mysteriousness that is so infused in her characters:

In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.

How could they not be mysterious? They live in passages like this:

We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and the nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others, and we had lost our sight.

And this:

Long after we knew we were too old for dolls, we played out intricate, urgent dramas of entrapment and miraculous escape. When the evenings came they were chill because the mountains cast such long shadows over the land and over the lake. There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.

Essentially, it is a novel for readers. It is for people who love language and love the mystery of a good character. I loved every minute spent with this book. I finished reading it in the living room and declared to Sam and Guion, “When I grow up, I just want to BE Marilynne Robinson.” Housekeeping is all I’ve ever wanted in a novel. I wanted to live there, as frightening and dark as it could sometimes be.

A novel that relies on memory and lyricism as its foundation is one that will not, naturally, appeal to everyone. But for me? It’s the perfect book. During Ruth’s strange and supernatural visit to the lake, Robinson includes a meditation on the person of Jesus Christ, on his life and presence, and on the ways that people remembered him, people then and now.

There is so little to remember of anyone–an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

What do we have that allows us remember of anyone? Just words. And the hope of resurrection.

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6 thoughts on “Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Housekeeping (#1)

  1. Of COURSE this is your number 1! Yes, I thought it was strange, but in an alluring, confusing, intriguing way. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I worried that I was being led down a dangerous path – which, I recall, is the way I felt the first time I read Robinson. She draws you in to such a depth that there’s no chance of turning back. It’s an amazing talent, and a power that she seems to handle with respect.

  2. At one point in ”Housekeeping,” Ruth has grown so awkwardly tall that her sister, Lucille, knocks the heels off her shoes to help her stand and move more naturally. Marilynne Robinson, too, does something like this. She knocks off the false elevation, the pretentiousness, of our current fiction. Though her ambition is tall, she remains down to earth, where the best novels happen.

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