Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and I’m stunned.  The title is simple enough, but the subject matter is expansive, haunting, and unresolvable. Yes, from the title, you could assume it’s about family, and true, we have the story about two sisters Ruth and Lucille abandoned by their mother Helen. After leaving her two young daughters with their belongings at her mother’s home in the remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Helen goes out and drives her car off the cliff.

The book won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for Best First Novel in 1980, and nominated for a Pulitzer that same year.

It’s about sisterhood, how Ruth and Lucille grow up first under the care of their aloof grandmother, then after her death, their two grand aunts, who can’t wait for a younger person to raise these children. So, finally, their mother’s younger sister Sylvie, the estranged daughter of their grandmother, the aunt they have never known, comes back home to Fingerbone to take care of them.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson

So yes, we can expect some dysfunctional upbringing. But that’s not it. Robinson’s narratives are lyrical, internal, thought-provoking and poignant. Rather than making a social comment on a dysfunctional family, it searches deep into the human condition.

It’s about loneliness, that haunting, inconsolable feeling that can drive one off the cliff of sanity. It’s about survival, how being constrained by such loneliness, one can still go on, striving to find some meaning in blood and kin, facing others during the day and oneself in the deep darkness of the night.

It’s also about personhood, how you might think after such a childhood experience, the two sisters would have clung to each other in an inseparable bond, and yet, one can still escape to another life by squeezing out of the relational cocoon.

And it points to the larger scheme of things, that all are transient, however static we may feel about our situations. No matter how well a housekeeping job we do to keep up an orderly life or fulfill expectations, we cannot ignore our inner chamber. We’re all a diaspora of transient humanity longing for home.

So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us… Sylvie was an unredeemed transient, and she was making a transient of me.

I read Gilead years ago. I don’t know why I’ve waited until now to savour Robinson’s other fictional works. Housekeeping is hauntingly true and intellectually satisfying. I know this is a book I need to reread many times in order to grasp all that the author is saying… if I can ever do that, gleaning all that Robinson had meant to say. So many thoughts in just 219 pages.

Many images from other books and movies conjured up in my mind as I was reading: the movies Thelma and LouiseStand By Me, and Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. And Chapter 10, where Robinson puts the story in the context of Biblical allusions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life came to mind. But of course, those are merely images, or interactive memories. What draws my attention page after page is  the voice of Robinson’s narrator Ruth, and her heart-wrenching and yet unsentimental storytelling.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published by Faber and Faber, London. Third Edition, 2005. 219 pages.


Related Post:

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Dances With Words (where there’s a short write-up on Gilead)

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Tree Of Life Movie Review


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Arti. I read “Housekeeping” many years ago for my book club, as well as “Gilead” and “The Glass Castle.” I definitely need to re-read them all. Sometimes, because of time restraints, I find myself rushing through books assigned for book club and don’t savor them as I should. And if a book is good, a one-time reading isn’t enough.


    1. Cathy,

      Seems like Gilead is the most well-known due to its high acclaims and winning the Pulitzer. I’m just catching up here, have long wanted to read Robinson’s other works. I still have a couple of her non-fiction books on my TBR shelves. 😉


  2. My book club read Housekeeping years ago. Such a wonderful book… don’t know why it’s taking me so long to read her other fiction. Gilead has been on my shelf for a couple of years now. Excellent review, Arti!


    1. JoAnn,

      Thanks. And, looks like everyone has read Housekeeping except me until now. No matter, better late than never. As for Gilead, you know, I’ve read it as well as listened to its audio CD’s. And I must say, the audiobook is excellent and the narrator is spot on. Maybe you’d be interested in my write-up here. It’s one of the best audiobooks I’ve come across.


  3. I loved Gilead, and when my book club read it about 2 years after my initial read, I read it again and then rushed out to the book store to by Home and Housekeeping. I read Home – somewhat a sequel to Gilead — but never picked up Housekeeping. It’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years now. It’s my turn to choose the next book for my book club and I think I just decided on my choice! Thanks for your review, Arti.


    1. Anne,

      O… it’s a good choice for a book group. The literary style of Housekeeping is quite different from Gilead but the depth of insights and the sensitivity of observations no less. It’s more lyrical too which I really appreciate. I’ve enjoyed reading it in solitude. Reading it and sharing it with a book group would bring out more thoughts. That would be a real experience I’m sure. I’d be curious to know how that goes. 😉 Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.


    1. Definitely, Diane. That’s what caught my attention first. Robinson’s writing is poetic. Very versatile and talented indeed considering she has also written books of non-fiction, very cerebral essays highly acclaimed as well.


  4. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly negative review of Housekeeping. I’ve heard so many good things about the book (and especially the writing) that I really don’t know why I haven’t read it yet, especially considering how relatively short it is…


    1. Biblibio,

      I know, it’s taken me all this time since the book was published (1980) to read it. But… better late than never. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Hope to hear from you again. 😉


  5. Isn’t it a wonderful book? I read it a very long time ago but your lovely post makes me want to read it again. I think I’ll do that sometime.


    1. Stefanie,

      Yes… and I’m reading Robinson’s The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought now. The book has been on my shelf for oh so long, side by side with Absence of Mind… waiting TBR. 😉


  6. What a beautiful review. I read this book a couple of years ago and found it very intriguing. I liked it a lot more than Gilead, in fact, which I couldn’t get into (but should try again).


    1. Thank you litlove. It means a lot to have your positive feedback on my review. 😉 And, like you, I’d enjoyed the writing style of Housekeeping more than Gilead, albeit the thoughts in Gilead are quite profound.


  7. Well, any book that stuns you must be well worth reading! I think I have Gilead in my pile but haven’t hit it yet (I did start, but it was at a bad time in life to be reading it). Now I think I must add this one as well.


    1. Jeanie,

      Stunned by her prose style. As for Gilead, I’ve both read the book and listened to the audio CD’s while driving, which I think is a marvelous way to enjoy the book and save time as well.


  8. I see she has some non-fiction, as well. I might dip into that – or at the very least add it to my list. Despite the skill of the authors (well attested to by everyone here, as far as Robinson is concerned!) I still find myself shying away from much contemporary fiction. I’m beginning to develop some hypotheses as to why that might be so. Suffice it to say, having lived my way through certain experiences, I have no desire to revisit them, even in fiction.

    Still, I enjoy reading the reviews. One of these days I’ll dip in.

    By the way, I had companions at work today – eight baby swallows, all in a row on a line, being fed mosquitos or whatever by their parents. They twittered their little hearts out. Such fun!


    1. Linda,

      I know how you feel about shying away from contemporary fiction. You know, I wouldn’t think of Marilynne Robinson as just a ‘contemporary writer’. I think of her more of a contemporary thinker, intellectual, a Calvinist, an aesthete… she’s the one who said, in the intro. of her non-fiction work The Death of Adam the following: “I miss civilization and I want it back.” She is one of the most likely people in our times to bring it back. My experience with her non-fiction works is that … I admit, I’m not intellectually prepared to read them. I’m still trying to do just that. 😉

      You might be interested to read this New Yorker article. I’m particularly impressed by this line: “But even though I’m a more or less a fully paid-up atheist, I’m more drawn to Robinson’s Christian humanism than I am to the Dawkins-Dennett-Hitchens-Harris school of anti-theist fighting talk.”


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