C's Reviews > Housekeeping

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
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's review
Nov 03, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: own
Read from November 24 to 29, 2011

I wanted to give Robinson another shot after slogging through Gilead my junior year of undergrad, but I'm afraid to say that I disliked Housekeeping even more. I feel the same way about Housekeeping as I feel about sushi: I WANT to like it (it's the cultured thing to do), and the components all seem OK on their own, but the final product is totally unappetizing. I have trouble expressing exactly what turned me off about this book, but I have a few ideas:

I have great patience for character-driven, ether-ish, plotless books. I love Woolf's To the Lighthouse and, as a poet, I don't mind wallowing in the beauty of words for pages on end. But if you aren't going to have anything happen to your characters, you should at least make THEM interesting (not necessarily likeable, just three-dimensional). But all the characters in Housekeeping are lumped into Outsiders (Ruth, Sylvie) and Insiders (Lucille, the townspeople)--there isn't a whole lot of development outside this dichotomy. And not only is the inside/outside division uninteresting and hammered to death, but we, the readers, are asked to align with the Outsiders' POV. And, honestly, I just don't. So many times Ruth says something where she includes the reader/larger humanity and I just don't buy it. The book is packed with moments like:

"One cannot cup one's hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up."

I don't know about you, but most of the time when I take a drink from a lake it doesn't induce an existential crisis about death and family. The book is just DROWNING in meaning: every cushion, every raindrop is somehow cause for multiple paragraphs overcrowded with adjectives and grasping towards profundity. This is not to say that Robinson is untalented; many times throughout the book I was struck by the beauty of her writing. The problem is that there isn't anything for these profound, poetic moments to brush up against except more profound, poetic moments (and some truncated dialogue). And so, for me, most of the moments rang false and even pretentious.

I'm trying to keep the snark to a minimum, but one last thing:

I kept waiting for Ruth or Sylvie to kill themselves--not only because then the book would be over, but because it seemed to me that there were too few things that they loved to keep them tethered to the world. The book simplified and almost idealized mental illness (or however you want to characterize their depression/solely internal mode). And that's not, in my mind, an admirable goal for literature--no matter how many pretty metaphors you also cram between the pages.
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message 1: by Rory (new)

Rory given our differences in opinion about sushi, I'm not sure I shouldn't give this one a try (it's been recommended to me too), but that WAS pretty convincing. thanks for the heads up!

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