Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

In 2003, when the Observer newspaper compiled a list of “the 100 greatest novels of all time,” one title – Housekeeping – stood out. What? It was the only one from the last century that I hadn’t heard of. Who? Marilynne Robinson sounded like a new Harper Lee: one bang a quarter of a century ago and then silence. Now, six years later, she needs no introduction: two more novels in quick succession, a Pulitzer, a Bessie, and overall as much orgiastic praise as you can eat. I’ve read Gilead but not Home, but was pleased recently when a book swap project landed me with a copy of that (suddenly reprinted) debut.

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

My recollection of Gilead – perhaps distorted – is that a heavy religiosity pervaded each page, so I approached Housekeeping (1981) with doubts. There is a hymnal, if not quite biblical, quality to the prose: solid but lyrical, Southern without gothic. It sometimes overreaches (for a death we have “my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening”), but mostly it is what politicians would call fit for purpose. The first third of the book takes its time unpacking the opening paragraph:

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

The aim, I suppose, is that the reader should itch to know what became of their mother and why they passed through so many hands. In creating this need, and then satisfying it, Robinson proves herself to be adept in aspects of literary magic. As well as providing aesthetic pleasure in her prose, the sort that begs to be rolled around in the mouth before swallowing, she sketches brilliant set pieces a page or two in length, little essences of storytelling – as when a train slides into the lake.

The lake is central to the story, and to Ruth and Lucille’s lives in the town of Fingerbone (the name so effortfully evocative that it’s almost comical). Unanchored to a fixed family, as the figures surrounding them change, the sisters develop an attachment to the landscape instead. The lake is “a place of distinctly domestic disorder”, surrounded by “uncountable mountains.” It seems from the outset destined to bring tragedy, but isn’t that what lakes do in literature?

Lake, woods, place: it can all seem a little literary-fiction-by-numbers, but that is not to deny the power of the telling. “Fact explains nothing,” we are told, so it’s a book of impressions and memories, informal but not unreliable. Robinson continues to display her best writerly skills, surprising us with comedy, as when the sisters-in-law Lily and Nona Foster first meet Sylvia, who they hope can take over care for the girls:

So when Lily said, with a glance at Nona, “What a lovely dress,” it was as if to say, “She seems rather sane! She seems rather normal!” And when Nona said, “You look very well,” it was as if to say, “Perhaps she’ll do! Perhaps she can stay and we can go!”

As that opening paragraph told us, she does stay; they do go.  There is a fine touch too of character sketching in the traditional sense, witty and not too wordy:

Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them.

The accumulation of all these elements is impressive, because the writing remains low-key enough for it not to look like showing off. (Though perhaps such literary coquettishness is itself a form of showing off.) When the people and the town are associated so closely, it’s obvious that Robinson is pulling out another literary trick – foreshadowing – as when Ruth tells us, “There was not a soul there but knew how shallow-rooted the whole town was. It flooded yearly, and had burned once.”

What that leads to is a pretty dramatic last few scenes, particularly so for a book others have described as one where not much happens. One might say that the way events accumulate in the story is the same way that Housekeeping became a modern classic: gradually, and then suddenly.


  1. When you mentioned the importance of the lake, immediately Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks came to mind and well, now I’m posting even though I have not encounterd Housekeeping–yet–because this connection with the land/landscape/lake between two so very different writers seems to be a connecting of significant dots. Thanks.

  2. I think you mean Housekeeping not Home at the end of the first paragraph.

    This one is sitting on the shelf, waiting the right mood. I have read Home and my reaction was similar to yours to Gilead. There is a formality to Robinson’s prose style that is both a strength and weakness. In the right frame of mind, it helps take me into the apparent ordinariness of her story — in the wrong frame, it just seems to precious. Having said that, Housekeeping does seem to be a must read, if only because of the recognition it has received from sources such as the Observor and New York Times (which also had it on a best of the whatever list).

  3. When I had a long commute to work, I listened to audiobooks, one of which was Robinson’s Gilead. Some books work well in audio form and Gilead was one that did. Based on that experience and your review (as well as the “modern classic” status of the book), I plan to work my way around to Housekeeping. One of the aspects of Gilead that I particularly enjoyed is that you so aptly identify: “The accumulation of all these elements [effective use of set pieces, humor, character sketches, etc.] is impressive, because the writing remains low-key enough for it not to look like showing off.” I think that these quieter novels are often able to delve a bit deeper than more showy efforts (Corrections, for instance). Without your review, I probably would not have picked up Housekeeping any time soon, but you’ve reminded me of what I liked about Robinson as a writer and tantalized me with the unique (and likely more appealing to me) aspects of Housekeeping.

  4. I bought Housekeeping years ago and couldn’t get more than a few pages in, despite trying more than once. Then, I’m not sure why, I bought a copy of Gilead (OK, it was the US edition, very attractively made, and in a charity shop) and I was both impressed and deeply moved by it, to such an extent I lifted a sentence and phrase from it as the epigraph and title to my new novel (out next April: end of plug). I’m temperamentally allergic to self-satisfied religiosity, but I found the tone of the book and its thoughtful questioning of itself utterly rewarding, and the slow unveiling of the relationship between the narrator and his namesake surprisingly gripping. I now have Home to read, and if I like that as much as I did Gilead I’ll be going back to have a final try at the first one. A lesson not to give up on a writer…

  5. I’ve been wondering when this review would go up, John. I must say, I’m not entirely sure if you liked it or not. And perhaps that’s part of your point in the review. This was my first Robinson, and maybe that was a good thing. I was quite taken by it. I also wonder how much my frame of mind helped. It was November, and the setting just sank in.

    On another note, congrats on making it to 300,000 visits (at this posting, you’re at 299,508)!

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. Trevor, I did like the book but I’m not sure how much – and my review does consciously reflect that. Sometimes I’d rather just try to highlight some of the features and qualities of a book rather than say what way it rubbed me up (after all, we all know of books we liked or didn’t, which we could have felt the reverse about in other circumstances). Thanks for flagging up the visits milestone – I would have missed it otherwise!

    Charles, given that I did like Housekeeping, even if I’m not sure how much, I do think I will have to go back to Gilead and perhaps set aside my own temperamental allergy this time. Can you reveal what the epigraph and title for your next book is? I look forward to reading it.

    Kerry, I’m glad to have been instrumental in getting you to try this one, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts in due course.

    Kevin, in fact I did mean Home, as in “of her famous recent novels, I’ve read one but not the other” – but I think I tried to compact too much into one sentence, so I accept your correction.

    47whitebuffalo, I’ve never read any Louise Erdrich, though I did enjoy a collection of stories by her late husband Michael Dorris many years ago – Working Men I think it was called. Then again, as I suggested above, the whole landscape-as-extension-of-characters is not an uncommon motif in ‘literary fiction’.

    1. Well Michael Dorris had his flaws and strengths and one of the strengths was the collaborative natureof the writing relationship between himself and Louise Erdrich and the ramifications of that for each of them as writers. I would not consider Fleur’s relationship with the ‘lake’ in Tracks simply a literary motif as it is an expression of a deep cultural bond with the earth. So I guess that realistic cultural expression would put it outside the realm of Housekeeping’s contrived literary connection and Robinson’s ken.

  7. With pleasure, John. The title is, and I hope, continues to be ANY HUMAN FACE, and the epigraph is “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”

  8. I’m a little surprised you didn’t like this book more, John. I think I’m beginning to get a sense of your taste and this strikes me as one you would like a lot. In any event, I read “Housekeeping” too long ago to say much intelligible about it here.

    As far as her other books go, I think you’re saving the best for last. I liked “Gilead” when it came out but thought it was a little over-hyped (her first in 20 years and all that). “Home”, on the other hand… Well, she really delivers with that book. An instant classic in my opinion. Not much happens in the book–I will warn you of that in advance–but if she great writing and high-mindedness can hold, then you will not be disappointed.

  9. I found Housekeeping rather hard going at the time, but have fond memories of it. It’s a very distinctive, beautiful portrait of a remote place.

    It feels a little like magic realism in the vein of One Hundred Years of Solitude, even though there’s no magic as such. It’s like the very best bits of García Márquez’s novel — the bits where it’s gorgeously evocative of a place and time, rather than just silly and implausible.

  10. Oops, I left out a word in my response above. What I meant to say was if good writing and high-mindedness can hold you, then “Home” is the book for you.

    Also, to anyone who might be interested, they made a movie of “Housekeeping” with Christine Lahti in the starring role. It was one of the better adaptations from book to movie I’ve seen.

  11. I think we ended up reading this at almost exactly the same time, John! Your final sentence nails it, for me. I found it slow-going but compelling, yet didn’t adore it as I was reading. In the weeks that have followed, though, I have looked back on it with growing admiration, for the way the charcters and images have stuck with me, not least Fingerboone itself, and the whole novel seems to have grown enormously in my imagination. Personally I can’t help but be enamoured of a book that’s not quite like anything I’ve read before, particularly in terms of its prose. It’s interesting to think back on its publication in 1981, when Carver-style minimalism was approaching a fashionable peak, and see why it took a while for its stylised prose to reach readers.

  12. Housekeeping is great. Gilead is one of finest English-language novels of the last quarter century. Utterly necessary fiction. Home, I think, is less essential, but still worth reading.

    With the latter two, though I’m an atheist, I find it surprising to learn of readers put off by the religiosity. I mean, yes, religion pervades the books, but there is nothing remotely preachy about them.

    1. I agree with your assessment of Gilead. Home feels like a much more modest achievement, and if you already know the plot of Gilead, it’s also a bit dull. Funny how it’s the more recent novel that is the bigger hit in the UK.

  13. I should add, that I find the questioning nature of Gilead in particular to be part of why I find it so necessary. How to be good, what does it mean to have faith, and so on.

  14. …which leads me to suspect that she didn’t read to the end, Mr Pack, hence my comment above:

    What that leads to is a pretty dramatic last few scenes, particularly so for a book others have described as one where not much happens.

    Thanks again for the comments, all. I will definitely read Home, John H, probably sooner rather than later.

    Richard, I am sure you’re right about the religious content of the books. I must confess that my memory of Gilead was so slight, that I extrapolated backwards from a recent interview with Robinson, where she describes her theological bent, and anti-Dawkins views. I inferred from that (I think wrongly) that any religiosity that I remembered from Gilead must have been a sincere expression of the author’s own views. A dangerous road, I know. So I’d better reread Gilead too. By then she will probably have written another one.

    Joe, yes, I think we did co-read this one. Now you see the appeal for older, reissued books – so much more likely to have staying appeal than next month’s next big thing. 😉

  15. I loved Housekeeping for its placid, cool style with all of the humor and emotion so carefully and cautiously placed. Some of her sentences are so breathtaking that I read them two or three times to feel their freshness and perfection. I also read Gilead about three years ago, didn’t rate it very highly then, but there are some things about it that I haven’t forgotten and won’t. The old man’s doubts, his jealousy and fear of Jack. Hope the brackets work for italics.

  16. I discovered Marilynne Robinson through her essay, “Psalm 8”, which is one of my favorite pieces of writing. I had never read anything like it. I was shocked at the intensity of the work I was willing to put in to gain a deeper understanding of what she was saying; shocked also at how deep she takes you. There’s a feeling of danger about her reading her work. It’s as though you’re walking a high wire — certainly going places you haven’t been before.

    I went looking for more of this kind of writing and found Housekeeping which I’ve now read three times. I admire it but I’m not sure that I’m deep enough — as deep as that lake — to truly say that I know it. There are parts of it that seem among the truest things I’ve ever read and then there are sections which simply confound me. I’ve read Gilead and didn’t love it as much as Housekeeping but then I’ve only read it once. I want to read it again before I read Home.

    By the way, I don’t often read books more than once; favorite passages, yes, but seldom the entire book. The spareness of her prose — that pared-down quality that reminds me of Giacometti’s sculpture — and the truth it reveals — simply compel me to come back again and again.

    I think Marilynne Robinson is one of those writers I’ll be going back to for the rest of my reading life. She never fails to challenge and delight me.

    1. Thanks Molly – it’s great to hear of someone getting so much from any book. I hope Home gives you as much pleasure as Housekeeping has.

    1. I hadn’t, Adr. – thanks. Interesting that the sentence they single out for praise is one that was ‘inspired by’ (ie partly lifted from) another writer. Any guesses, or is it so obvious that everyone knew it already and was too polite to say?

      1. An author I have had a mixed experience with: Hemingway
        (The Sun Also Rises: yes. The Old Man and the Sea: not really)

      2. Yes Alan, it’s from Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) I think. Although I’ve read that book, I only know the line because it was used as the epigraph for Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City:

        “How did you go bankrupt?”

        “Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.”

        (That’s from memory.)

  17. I gave up on Gilead – I found it heavy going, although I should have persisted since I know from experience that often if I persist with books after the first twinge of impatience, I get a second wind. So I haven’t read Home or Housekeeping, but I may have to give Robinson another go.

  18. I read Housekeeping years ago and wasn’t that impressed, and then I reread it again after seeing that it had made several of those ‘top-books-of-all-time’ lists. The second time around I loved it. And that’s the fascinating thing about rereading a novel, I think. It says more about how the reader has changed…

  19. Her book titles are so hopelessly plain and mundane, “Housekeeping”, “Gilead”, and “Home”, that it takes a super-human effort on my part to get around to reading them. Her books are embedded with dull old Iowa situations and old-fashioned insufferable Christian people Yet for all that, I end up giving her novels my highest rating after reading them. Currently, I’m listening to the 10-disk audio CD of “Home” during my 27-mile each way commute to work. I’m only on disk 3 and am still waiting for something truly intereting to happen.

  20. Hi John – I started Gilead and was put off by what I perceived as a smug tone and the “religion”.

    But then my mother suggested that what Robinson is really about are morals and how they guide (or misguide) people through their daily life. I then read Home and thought it was brilliant. The tone was far darker and more doubtful. She seemed to say that though religions try to offer moral guidance it is essential that such guidance be rooted in the day to day reality of life as lived and experienced here on earth.

    In my opinion Robinson is a writer of fiction with a “purpose” or a “project” – she is not writing to entertain and she does want to affect, perhaps to change, people through the telling of her stories.

    Of course this leaves her open to the charge that she is in fact “preaching”.

    Maybe she is – if so, I, for one, was converted…

  21. Thanks Tony, Matthew, Guy and leyla – it does seem from your comments and others’, that Robinson is a writer who gets through to you relatively slowly: gradually, one might say, and then suddenly. I did feel an increased affection for Housekeeping (I didn’t write the above until a couple of weeks after I’d read it) so maybe now I can skip straight to having read Home, without having to go through the hassle of actually reading it.

  22. Living in the real town, and the shores of the lake that is the setting of House Keeping, I had read this some time ago only for that reason. Robinson actually resided here for a time. I plan on re-reading it. As I remember It struck me as book that resonated long after, upon reflection. She was a creative writing student at Brown under John Hawkes.It would be logical that her prose would tend to be on the atmospheric side.
    BTW, as an old lit student, I dearly love novels where nothing “interesting” “happens”…

  23. Thanks for your comment, windsweptfiction. I didn’t realise that Fingerbone was a real town (is that its real name? Surely not). And John Hawkes: there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. I read his novel Whistlejacket many years ago and, as is the legal requirement, can’t remember a thing about it (except horses, painting, and probably sex). I also picked up, with great hopes, a three-in-one edition of his novels including The Lime Twig which had, for me, the triple imprimatur of praise (and possibly even a foreword) by Patrick McGrath, publication by Penguin 20th Century Classics (as it then was), and a seedy-sounding English mid-century setting. Somehow I resisted them, however, and don’t think I even finished reading any of them. Ones to return to perhaps, if anyone else can offer some words in support of Hawkes.

  24. I read a lot of Hawkes a few years ago. I have that same Penguin edition of which you speak, and as coincidence would have it, picked it up the other day, planning to try a re-read of The Lime Twig. It turned out I wasn’t in the mood. However, there is something about Hawkes. Often very difficult, surprisingly so. I remember with The Lime Twig itself that I struggled with it mightily, and then all of a sudden it clicked, and I was conscious of being in the presence of great beauty, but then it flitted away again, and though I could tell you about some seediness, and a horse, and some other images, I couldn’t tell you what it added up to, if anything. Hence the desire to re-read it. That probably doesn’t help at all!

    Since I’m here, I thought I’d make a point that some commenters appear to be forgetting, in their characterization of Gilead as “smug” or whathaveyou, and that’s that it’s the preacher who we’re reading, not Robinson herself. She obviously views him with sympathy, but she is not indentical to him.

  25. John, actually the town of House Keeping’s “Fingerbone” is Sandpoint, Idaho, and the lake is Lake Pend Oreille. Robinson spent some time here growing up. She had an in-depth interview re: the area’s influence on her upbrining in the local quarterly magazine but I didn’t read it.

    Sounds like you have read more Hawkes than I have. He was definitely in the ‘experimental writer’ category. I read and loved his second novel, Beetle Leg, but it was anything but a traditional read. I keep seeing his name mentioned as a ‘writers writer’ (whatever that may mean to common readers like me)

  26. Oh dear – I feel compelled to say that `Housekeeping’ was one of the most tedious and boring books I have read. ( I’ve just thrown it in the Oxfam box).I don’t deny that Marilynn Robinson can write a haunting phrase and there were descriptions that were beautifully written and memorable but for me a good book has to have an interesting narrative and some real characters. The two girls and their aunts were insubstantial wraiths and the aunt had an annoying `dippy hippy’ quality which was deeply unsympathetic. As another reader says – all too `precious’. Moreover, what on earth did they live on?

  27. Oh you know, Richard – sometimes you just gotta let it out!

    Don’t worry though, there’s a cheap copy of Housekeeping for someone in Mary’s region once she gets down to the Oxfam shop, which is some consolation…

  28. ‘I always think it’s weird when someone chimes in well after a thread has died with a pointlessly negative comment.’

    Oh I get it! Irony!

    I so hope there’s a town called Fingerbone somewhere. It would be, like, so beyond.

  29. Heh, no.

    What I mean is that it’s one thing to address a long-dormant thread with your own take, positive or negative, if that take has any substance. After all, blog posts can be reached any time by anybody, not just when they’re supposedly current. What I think is odd is posting a late comment that says little more than “the book was tedious”.

    That said, perhaps I merely grew weary of reading such comments about this beautiful book. All apologies to Mary, who probably didn’t count on all these comments in the wake of hers expressing her honest response to the book.

  30. Yes, I think what happened, Richard, is that Mary finished the book, reflected on the disparity between all the praise it has received and how much she disliked it, and went googling for other views. This review appears on the first page of search results for marilynne robinson housekeeping, so here she ended up. And should there be any doubt, Mary, your opinion is most welcome and you should feel free to add your thoughts to any other threads here. Provided you agree with me. 😉

  31. Thank you John. That’s exactly what I did do. I didn’t realise that this was a `dormant’ thread . I thought these book blogs were all about expressing opinions. Richard’s initially rather peevish response seems to be because I didn’t like a book he loves. Yes it can hurt! I felt `compelled’ to write because I felt strongly about this novel and it seemed to be receiving an inordinate amount of praise. If you prefer I can retrieve the book from its cardboard receptacle and give it a more detailed and considered critique. I’ll still hate it.

  32. I didn’t realise that this was a `dormant’ thread

    Now you mention it, actually it wasn’t – looking back I can see that your comment came just a week after the last comment. But as Kevin suggests, I do like it when people bring up old threads anyway. The record so far on this blog is two years.

  33. I read Gilead, or tried to, and just couldn’t get into it. Then I read ‘Home’ and I absolutely loved it. I think it might possibly be a book best read at a certain age, it certainly worked on me (50+). I then returned to Gilead and found that reading it as sequel to Home, vastly improved my appreciation of the former. As a pair, two points of view in the same period and covering parts of the same story, not to mention landscape and history, was a reading experience of enormous pleasure. Once I’ve ploughed through the Booker longlist, I’ll read Housekeeping.

  34. I had read Gilead when it first came out and liked it but it wasn’t until I reread it recently while reading ‘Home’ that I fully appreciated what Robinson has done.In both books, as well as in Housekeeping, which I since read, she has examined the concept of ‘home’ from radically different points of view. For people like Lila, ‘home’ means a safe haven where the wanderer can put down roots but for people like Jack and Sylvie, ‘home’ is a trap that must be avoided at all costs. For the Glorys of the world, home is a prison with no escape. Robinson reminds us eloquently that ‘home’ as a concept, although very close to our hearts, has both positive and negative connotations. And after reading all three books, we still don’t have a clue about Robinson’s own relationship to the idea of ‘home’.

  35. Some years back, I happened to rent a house in Minneapolis next to Louise Erdrich, who has a gem of a bookstore just up the road. So impressed was I with the bookstore that I turned myself completely over to the salesperson who asked what I was looking for. I asked for his recommendation, and after some artful queries about books I had loved and not much fancied, he recommended Housekeeping, together with a money back guarantee. I was enchanted. For months, I avoided Gilead for fear of disappointment and disillusionment. Fast forward to a wedding for a friend, and a delightful young woman asked what books I had loved reading. We traded recommendations for a bit, and then I told her that I wanted to share the name of what I thought might be the most magical book I’d ever read. She and I both said the title Housekeeping simultaneously. Turns out she was a writer, and headed to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, to take classes with Marilynne Robinson. To finish this story of a love affair, I did read Gilead and then Home, which were lovely but not quite as lyrical or evocative. And then saw MR at the Book Festival in DC just a few weeks ago. As a final postscript, we bought the book as a wedding gift for our host. He ran a little late for the ceremony, because he was busy paging through the book the morning of. Run, don’t walk, to buy HK.

  36. I finished Housekeeping today and although I could see much merit in it, I found throughout that I struggled to pay attention and had to go back over things.

  37. I just finished this book and loved it. I’m surprised at people who say that “nothing happens” in the novel. What happens is death, death, and more death.

    But, you didn’t find the line “my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening” amusing? There is a dark humor running through the novel, as when the narrator reveals, almost as asides, each new detail of the encroaching decrepitude of the house.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughtful review.

  38. I would like to enjoy the book, for I had to read it for my class anyway. But while it might not seem like showing off to somepeople, I found it glaring—-as if the phrase “I am American” is writen in bold every other page.

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