Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
– reviewed by HC at The Irresponsible Reader
It’s time for my home state here in this little series we’re doing: Idaho, featuring the book Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Set in the fictional town of Fingerbone, in the Northern part of the state, about 50-60 miles from the Canadian border (not information from the book, that’s just me trying to orient those of you looking at a map).
Lucille, and her older sister Ruth, are raised in the same house their mother grew up in. We’re told straight away that following their mother’s death they lived with their grandmother, then her two sisters, and finally their mother’s younger sister. The circumstances surrounding these transitions are revealed gradually — none of the adults in their lives were cut out for parenting (Grandmother was at one point, and probably would’ve sufficed if she hadn’t died).
This is not a plot-driven book, and it’s hard to talk about what plot there is without telling you everything — so I’ll be vague. Ruth tells us about her grandfather’s death; them coming to live in his old house; life with grandmother, great-aunts, and aunt; and then things really start happening as she and Lucille enter adolescence and I’m not going to ruin anything by finishing this sentence properly. On page 27, I wrote “this text is so beautiful, I don’t care what happens, I’m going to love this book.” Thankfully, I was right — because once things happened, I really didn’t like it — but I loved reading the book. There are other characters in the book, but they’re of so little importance, I’m not going to say anything beyond acknowledging their existence. The focus is on the girls, their family and the really old house in which they all reside.
Thematically, this book is about loneliness, family ties, waiting for someone/something. I’m not sure there’s much difference in Ruth’s mind between loneliness and waiting (nor am I that sure that there’s much difference in my mind between them as I write this). For young girls to have this much upheaval in their parental figure(s), loneliness and loss are going to loom large in their psycho-social development — and they’re not going to respond the same way to things. You add some pretty perceptive thoughts about loneliness to Robinson’s prose and you’ve got yourself a winner of a book.
So what do we learn about Idaho here? Nothing. Fingerbone could be any small city/large town in the U.S. There is nothing distinctive Idaho about this book. Well, almost nothing. There’s a lot of mentioning of local place names (mostly cities, incidentally, that most non-Idahoans are going to mispronounce) — enough so that we all know that Fingerbone is just Sandpoint’s nom de plume, but that’s as “Idaho” as we get here. Take out the local names and this could be in any state that has lakes, forests and railroads — which pretty much covers all 50, right? I don’t know why Robinson didn’t just use the actual town’s name — but, whatever. The fact that Entertainment Weekly thinks this novel “best defines” Idaho probably says more about the dearth of books set here than anything else.
Lyrical, haunting, insightful, beautiful — this is prose that’ll stick with you. I didn’t like the ending, but it worked and was earned, so I can get over it. Don’t worry about the story, focus on the telling of it and you’ll likely agree, this is stunning stuff.