Housekeeping: Book Review

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

This is a re-read for me. I first read this book ~15 years ago and was struck by the lyricism. I didn't remember much about the story. On this re-read, I'm still struck by the lyricism - I feel as though I've read an extended poem. The story is almost incidental to the language. But the story, largely character driven, is wonderful, too.

Ruthie and Lucille are sisters raised by their grandmother after their mother leaves them with her and drives into the lake. When one morning their grandmother "eschewed awakening," Lily and Nona, two spinster great aunts, attempt to step in but are not up to the task of raising two adolescents. Finally, their aunt Sylvie appears after having been missing for years. She is a drifter, and returning to Fingerbone, Idaho, to her old family home proves to be hugely challenging for her. She is eccentric and a little bit crazy, but her heart is in the right place.

Lucille rebels against Sylvie's nonconformity, but Ruth, the narrator of the book, becomes more and more like her as time goes on. Eventually Sylvie must prove her competence as a guardian to the sheriff and townspeople, who become alarmed at Sylvie's behavior and perceived neglect of the girls.

I found myself reading passages multiple times just for the beauty of the language. For instance:

For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?


The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindled clouds smoldered and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out of its chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly and red and improbable. In an hour it would be the ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me.
There are passages like this on almost every page. It's a book to sink down into and float effortlessly, letting the prose wash over you like soothing waves. Highly recommended.