Loss pulls us after it – “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson

December 15, 2014 at 8:32 pm 10 comments

11741“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson, Published in 1980

This book is magic.  Not like the cheer you up and make you feel warm all over magic, but the most thoughtful, tragically, beautifully written magic.  The kind of writing magic that makes you stay up later than you should to just get through those next few pages.

Ruth and her little sister, Lucille, are dropped off by their mother on the porch to their grandmother’s house in the small mountain town of Fingerbone.  She hands them each graham crackers to keep them occupied until their grandmother returns. As they sit waiting, munching crackers, their mother gets into her car and drives off a cliff into the lake.  Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother cares for them in her house in the small mountain town of Fingerbone.   It is an orderly, simple life spinning  “off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time.”   When their grandmother dies and after a short stint of their great Aunts living with them, Ruth and Lucille find themselves in the care of their Aunt Sylvie (their mother’s younger sister).

Aunt Sylvie has been riding the rails for years and doesn’t seem comfortable with being tied down though she agrees to stay in Fingerbone for the girls.  But their life in the house has a transient feel – Sylvie sleeps with her shoes on laying on top of blankets, they eat in the dark, newspapers and cans are stacked everywhere, and Sylvie wanders at all hours of the day and night.  The girls, at first, are just eager to please Sylvie but then Lucille begins to want a normal childhood with normal friends and meals with vegetables.  And so, like everyone Ruth has loved before, Lucille leaves and goes to live with another family. Left behind, Ruth is lost. She seems unable to truly engage with anyone – it is as though she is just waiting for something to happen.  And in truth, some awful things have happened to her so her passiveness becomes a form of avoidance. What happens to Ruth doesn’t really seem to matter to anyone and why should it be any different. She is abandoned and untethered.

“Then there is the matter of my mother’s abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.”

The being left behind takes its toll on Ruth and she becomes a ghost,  there is nothing left to hold onto so why bother trying.  So she and Sylvie pick the inevitable path for their life together.

This book is haunting.  It has smells and sounds that are so real – salty, wet hair and cold, bare hands.  There are pools of water and crickets that grow quiet at the sound of footsteps. It has inanimate objects that are as important as the characters themselves.  The lake  is as still as glass but then floods everyone’s homes in case they have forgotten that it can cause damage. The lake is death but the characters keep returning to it, to watch the night roll in,  to sleep on its stones, to let its stillness embrace them.  The railway bridge is there to remind everyone that they can die or escape, it just depends on how they time it and how closely they watch.

But the book is also wise. It speaks of that desire our souls have to press on but how sometimes we just don’t have it in us. So we wait or we quit.  It is the story of how easy it is to get lost in whimsy and tumble into the darkness in ourselves.  It is about housekeeping, a life of order and connection –  the need of that connection to a place, or a person, or a time and how without that we truly are just adrift.  And it is about loss, the kind that leaves us waiting and wondering and eventually can drown us.

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”


Other reviews to check out: 

From Diamond Sharp

From Asylum 

From Jason F. Harper 



Entry filed under: December 2014 reads. Tags: , , , , .

Hitting the mediocre with commitment – “Daughter’s Keeper” by Ayelet Waldman Learning from those BH Housewives – “The Diamond Lane” by Karen Karbo

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. FictionFan  |  December 16, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Great review! And this sounds like a wonderful book. Gilead has been on my TBR for months, and I’ve been rather reluctant to tackle it, but your review of this one has changed that reluctance into impatience… 😀

    • 2. Emily C  |  December 16, 2014 at 11:36 am

      I have also had Gilead on the list and need to get to it! I hope we like it:)

  • 3. calehpatterson  |  December 20, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    I read this book in college, and then had the opportunity to hear Robinson lecture. It was as beautiful experience as reading the book!

    • 4. Emily C  |  December 20, 2014 at 9:37 pm

      I am so jealous. I am sure it was amazing.

  • 5. Claire 'Word by Word'  |  December 23, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Have read two great reviews of this today, including one that was in an audience listening to the author speak in London, sounded amazing and the book too.

    • 6. Emily C  |  December 23, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      I really want to get my hands on The Gilead so I can commit to being a Robinson fan. But I would love to hear her speak because her writing is amazing, at least in this book.

  • 7. sheridegrom - From the literary and legislative trenches.  |  December 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Emily – Terrific review. When a reviewer convinces me to place a novel on my ‘order list’ they’ve done a fine job by the author. I also have the 50 pg. rule. I always laugh because my husband insists on reading through to the end once he starts a novel and moans and groans all the way.

    • 8. Emily C  |  December 23, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      I hope you love the book when you get to it! I try to stick by the 50 page rule but I have to say too often I am also painfully groaning to the end. I would be best advised to stick to the rule:).

      • 9. sheridegrom - From the literary and legislative trenches.  |  December 24, 2014 at 12:48 am

        My husband gives me a hard time when after reading 50 pages I’ll read the final chapter before giving up. A few times this has lead me to read the entire book.

      • 10. Emily C  |  December 24, 2014 at 9:41 am

        That really funny.

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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