Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2017

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson #BookReview

Housekeeping is such a strange book, I hardly know how to begin.  Marilynne Robinson is world famous, especially after Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, but I didn’t much like Gilead so I was in no rush to read this first novel when in 2015 it arrived chez moi with the first release of Faber Modern Classics. (Which has since gone on to become a list of 21 titles).  Housekeeping sat alone and lonely, abandoned in a box marked 2015, but I couldn’t quite make myself take it to the Op Shop which is the fate of books that publishers have sent me but which fail to spark my interest.  I have no such compunctions with thrillers, crime novels, YA and weepy memoirs, but, well, I am in awe of the Robinson name, if not of her books.

Alone and lonely, abandoned in the care of someone not very interested in its fate… without knowing it, I had treated this book just like the characters in this novel!  Lucille and Ruthie are two girls living in Fingerbone, a small village in rural Idaho.  In what looks like a carefully planned suicide, they are abandoned first by their sole parent mother Helen to the care of their grandmother Sylvia, who has herself been abandoned by all three of her daughters.  (Molly has gone off to be a missionary in China, Helen had lost contact when she married, and Sylvie is an eccentric wanderer).  When grandmother dies, two elderly in-laws called Nona and Lily come to care for the girls but they are only too relieved to abandon the responsibility when long lost Aunt Sylvie turns up.

Men are conspicuous by their absence: Grandfather Edmund is killed in a train crash off the local bridge, unburied in the same lake in which Helen suicides.  The girls have never known their father, and there is a mock father figure of the sheriff (who is clearly out of his depth in this dysfunctional situation) but he becomes the catalyst for the breakup of this fragile family.

I haven’t read many reviews but the ones I’ve seen go on about the religious aspects of this novel and its Calvinism.  That’s not what I noticed so much.  This is a novel of the 1980s, a time when many of us were questioning women’s roles and exploring how we could have equal rights and our freedom and manage the impact on our families, our homes, and our children.  It seems to me that in amongst the religious stuff, Housekeeping is asking the same questions, trying to resolve a yearning for freedom and a rejection of the expectation that it’s women who pick up the pieces.  The novel asks: what happens when women just don’t do what society expects them to do.  What happens when they just don’t comprehend the predetermined roles?

First published in 1980, the novel has no clear setting in time, but it has a 1950s feel, the postwar period when women had had to abandon their participation in work and the wartime economy to retreat to housekeeping and domesticity.  These homemakers were also expected to conform in appearance and to sustain a devotion to their clothing and hair.  But the girls in Housekeeping have a free-range childhood.  They are under the nominal care of successive women who – for different reasons – pay no attention to the socialisation or education or appearance of Lucille and Ruthie, and who seem to have no concept of what keeping house might mean.  It’s not just an epic fail in housework, it’s an inability to make a home, a place to nurture two little orphaned girls.

I may have missed it, but I don’t think the author ever uses the term homemaker.  But it is implicit, though it’s not clear what homemaking might mean when separated from the domestic nirvana perpetrated in the 1950s.   Nobody is baking brownies or sewing or knitting for the girls. Nobody is decorating the house or organising playdates, sleepovers or birthday parties.  Nobody is making sure that shoes fit, nobody is reading bedtime stories, nobody is nursing wounded souls or even answering the girls’ questions about their parents.   But which of these aspects of housekeeping matter seems submerged.  I am not sure if Lucille and Ruthie have a sense of home even as they become aware of its limitations, or if what they have is a constrained (or just desperate) sense of family.   But it is also not clear who should be doing whatever kind of housekeeping is ultimately deemed important.  It is not exactly neglect on the part of the adults: I am not sure that the characters reject their expected roles as homemakers, it seems to be more a case of simply not comprehending what it means.  The feminist in me makes me note that nobody is expecting the absent father to make a home for his children.  The reader is left to wonder whether he comprehends housekeeping.


Aunt Sylvie is dramatically eccentric: she hoards empty tin cans and newspapers like Homer and Langley do.  But we can also read this as refusal, the kind of blind refusal to see the trash that needs to be put out by somebody.  The stereotypical 1950s man read the newspaper, and when he finished, he left it where it was, and he did not see it to notice it cluttering up the tidy home thereafter.  The stereotypical woman of the 1950s may have asked him to put it out with the trash – and if she asked twice it was nagging so her timing had to be good.  But if he didn’t remove his newspaper (and it was his) then she had to deal with it or it would have mounted up in stacks like Sylvie’s do.  The tin cans flourish, of course, because Sylvie does not cook except for ad hoc fry-ups, like men who say they can only do an egg or a burger, not cook an evening meal.  (These battles seem won in the 21st century, but some women discover guerrilla warfare when they stop work to have children).

Sylvie also disappears for long periods of time, crucially at night, when grownups are supposed to be there in the house to protect the children and to make them feel secure. Somebody supervises the pyjamas and tooth-brushing, tucks the children in, and deals with night-time terrors or wet beds.  The stereotypical 1950s mother did all this because she was expected to and because the stereotypical 1950s father was ‘tired after being at work all day’.  But Sylvie is as oblivious as he was.  She sleeps outside – on the grass and under trees and in her car.  She is as absent as a father who has gone away for a conference or on night shift, who takes it for granted that somebody is taking care of things.  But there is no somebody.  Society has assumed that Sylvie is the somebody but she is just someone who has moved into the house with the girls.  She has not ‘taken them on’.

Sylvie also has an unreachable personality.  She isn’t brooding or sulking.  Words float past her and there are long silences. She is simply not there for the girls.  She is unavailable to be a counsellor, a guide, a role model or a negotiator on their behalf.  The reader does not know what she thinks, or where she has been, or why she has become a drifter – and neither do the girls. So Lucille and Ruthie depend entirely on each other for love and affection, not to mention many of the practicalities of life.  I am not sure if the novel asks us to believe that these girls are undamaged, as if to say, see, all those brownies and frilly knickers are unnecessary, but as they reach adolescence, Lucille makes an unsurprising choice.  She opts for conformity and abandons Ruthie by going to live with a schoolteacher.  Facing belated pressure from the good folk of Fingerbone, Ruthie and Sylvia abandon things too.

Not since I read Angela’s Ashes, have I read a novel so saturated with water.  (Sorry, the pun is irresistible). It’s not just the fatal lake, the village also floods under torrential rain.  The heavens open a lot. But although the ground level is flooded, the quirky house built by Grandfather is a kind of ark – though why an Old Testament God should visit such punishment on the seemingly harmless wasn’t clear to me. But besides the flood, the girls are always getting wet and sleeping in damp clothes,  as if to compensate for tears unshed.

I didn’t find Housekeeping a very engaging novel, but I liked it better than Gilead.  Housekeeping is no 92 in the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.  (Careful, that review is one of the worst examples of spoilers I’ve ever seen).

Emma at Book Around the Corner reviewed it too: be sure to read the comments as well!

Author: Marilynne Robinson
Title: Housekeeping
Publisher: Faber Modern Classics, 2015, first published 1980
ISBN: 9780571322756
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Housekeeping: Faber Modern Classics


  1. I gave up on Gilead but I really liked Housekeeping. I watched the film first and if anything it helped to put the two (film and book) side by side.

    • Ooh, #excited, we are a club of two.Why didn’t you like Gilead?

      • It’s been a long time and it’s one of those cases where I abandoned it. Can’t remember specifics but I think it had to do with the religious elements of it.

        • Yes, me too, but also I hate the whole idea of trying to control things from beyond the grave. Writing a letter to descendants telling them how to live their lives is, no matter how it’s dressed up as the wisdom of the elderly, off limits IMO.

          • What was the name of that book … by Margaret Forster, was it? About a woman who’d inherited a mysterious box of clues, that she was supposed to track down so that she could glean the words of wisdom of her dead mother? How annoying to have a quest like that offloaded onto you, so that even if you think it’s an outrageous demand, it niggles away so that you feel you have to do it.

          • I don’t remember that part of Gilead but it sounds like a turn off

  2. I stopped reading at the spoiler alert but man, you sold me!

    • Well, that’s good.
      #Musing: somebody ought to write the same novel, today, plotting the shifts and regressions on the same issues…

  3. I have always thought Housekeeping a beautiful book–basically, you have to read it like one long prose poem. The loneliness behind it is what is engaging, not really the plot. And I love the movie with Christine Lahti as Aunt Sylvie–I’ve watched it several times.

    • That’s true, that’s what the blurb says as well. But I think the reasons for the loneliness matter too.

      • I felt the reasons were there, just more implied than stated. But I respect your opinion and can certainly see your point.

  4. Housekeeping is one of my favourite novels of all time. To me, it is a story of the American frontier, and the fragile toe-hold Europeans have on earth which is new to them, and which, for the most part, they fail to understand. Fingerbone is quintessentially a frontier town. In my view, Robinson explores similar themes in Gilead, a novel I also admire.

    • Hi Dorothy, Fingerbone certainly has a fragile hold on the landscape. I did think that the railway probably had a symbolism that I failed to grasp: I’ve seen something on TV – Great Man Made Wonders of the World , or something like that – and the building of the American railways was featured as a perilous undertaking costing many lives.
      I wondered about the name too – pointing the finger at someone who’s to blame? A bone to pick with someone?)

  5. Melbourne poet Susan Fealy, in her new release “Flute of Milk” has a poem dedicated to “Housekeeping”, called “In Lieu of a Statue”. It opens with;

    The grass is blue with frost –
    sharp as the small bones of feet.
    The lilacs rattle: the stone steps
    are too cold to sit upon.
    I watch her in the honey-lit room
    as she studies her face in the window.

    In an interview I conducted with Fealy she said of this book (and John Banville’s ‘The Sea”);

    ‘Housekeeping and The Sea have ghosts that haunt the present and they are immersed in water and light; their immersive, haunted qualities help build the flow as it were.’

    I really enjoy Marilynne Robinson’s style, the prose poetic, and I think Susan Fealy has dedicated well with her work.

    I’m glad you didn’t donate this to an op shop, and persisted.

    • *chuckle* The Op Shop will get it in the end, you know! (I did think that building a library in our house would solve the book storage problem, but no. It didn’t.)
      I can see how this book would appeal to lovers of poetry, but I wouldn’t put it in the same league as The Sea which I thought was so truly beautiful that I bought it twice. (I took the first one overseas where, alas, I had to shed luggage and so I had to buy it again when I got home). And yet lots of people loathe The Sea. People in the book group I belonged to, just hated it. I couldn’t believe it.
      Which just goes to show that there’s no accounting for tastes, and what’s more the book that’s wrong for you today can be just the right book next week.

      • Ha ha, Lisa, you as a librarian should have known that. Libraries never solve their problem by building new space. It just defers the evil day!

        Have not read past the first paragraph because I’m still hopeful if finishing Gilead – which I was loving but lost for months mid-read – and reading the follow-ups. I thought Gilead was beautiful, reflective, mesmerising, but DNF (so far!)

        • Don’t you hate it when you get interrupted with a book like that? I usually find that I have to start all over again.

          • Yes, I think I’ll have to – and I have it on my DNF shelf of interrupted books I want to finish (but I think I do need to declutter it of books I know I won’t read – a job to do soon)

  6. Great review Lisa. It ‘almost’ makes me want to read it but I found Gilead so tedious I can’t bear to think if it 😯

    • A club of three! Yay!

  7. I am almost sure that Gilead was President Obama’s favourite love. Just another bit of trivia so please excuse.

    • Oh, wasn’t it great to have a hip young president who loved reading! I mean, you can tell when journos go round the pollies and ask them what they read over summer but it’s the PR machine that answers with the names of books that they think will impress the voters, whereas You just knew with President Obama that he really had read the book he was championing, because he got that look on his face, the look we have when we just love a book and we want everyone else to love it too.

  8. Sorry about the typos. A Freudian slip maybe. My excuse is am on very powerful painkillers at present. Do enjoy your blog so much Lisa.

    • I’m sorry to hear you’re not well, Fay. Pain killers can definitely mess with the head, but if they bring relief from terrible pain, it’s worth it. Look after yourself, please do…

  9. I’m out of my league here as you guys discuss books I’ve never even heard of. But housekeeping in the 80s I do remember. For all our talk, breaking out of ingrained roles proved very difficult. As for this book in particular, it is possible that for kids, just having someone there was more important than having someone to talk to – which as I remember we didn’t much anyway, even in my ‘normal’ upbringing.

    • Heavens, yes, I found it difficult terrain to negotiate with The Ex, and he was a civilised man who’d had a working mother so he knew which end of a vacuum cleaner was which! I had friends at teachers’ college who had a terrible time when they graduated and went to full time work and their spouses didn’t play fair at all.
      But the point out Sylvie in this book is that a lot of the time, she just isn’t there, to talk to or otherwise.

  10. It’s so interesting how different people read books in different ways, the way books reveal themselves not as one thing but as multitudes. This is one of the things I love about Robinson, her books are never one thing but always multitudes. In my last reading of Housekeeping, it was transience and the social rejection of it and Sylvie’s embodiment of it which really leapt out at me, but your reading is also an interesting angle which I hadn’t considered and next time I read Housekeeping I’ll have it in my mind. Great review. I’ve loved most everything by Robinson (Home is my least favourite) but I see that she’s a writer around which a great ambivalence circulates which, possibly like Obama, I find mystifying. Such is the power of love, I guess :)

    • I’ve seen a couple of reviews that talk about that side of the book, and I think the transience issue is valid. However I think the disapproval is partly gendered, because drifting wasn’t something that women did, and it’s also because people disapprove of it when there are children involved. People think that stability and routine are important for children and so a drifting lifestyle must automatically be bad for them.

      • I think it’s a good point, particularly as the family ended up in Fingerbone anyhow on account of the Grandfather’s wandering, his transience, and none of the men ever seemed to stick around yet the women were expected to and when they didn’t they were subject to greater scrutiny and approbation. In fact the railroad itself, built and run by men, is a form of approved transience. Perhaps this is part of its significance in the book.

  11. I cannot join your growing group that didn’t like Gilead because I have avoided reading it. I did not much like Housekeeping. I really tried, and I read it to the end but just could not engage with the book.

    • I know what you mean, Nancy. I admired the writing, but I did not connect with the emotional side of it at all. We introverts can’t really understand loneliness, I think. (Though it’s good to read about it and try to understand how other people feel, of course).

  12. Well! This was an aces review, and I’m so glad someone has talked about the way Sylvie slips into a role that’s almost masculine given the time period. I loved Housekeeping, although it felt very fraught to me—I was constantly expecting a disaster, and was genuinely surprised that the three main characters made it to the end all alive.

    • Yes, I was sure that the lake was going to claim another victim!

  13. I wasn’t a fan of Gilead, either. And, because of that, I haven’t tried any of her other novels, but many people love them.

    • Four of us! Almost enough to be a support group! *chuckle*

  14. I opened your list of 21 Faber Modern Classics and was quite impressed with the list. Of the ones I haven’t read the two I most want to read are ‘An Unsuitable Job fro a Woman’ by P. D. James and ‘A Hawk in the Rain’ by Ted Hughes.

    • BTW, I loved Gilead, Housekeeping not so much.

      • It’s a good list, that Faber one, though I’m surprised they haven’t added more to it. The Text Classics series runs to over 100 titles now.

  15. I have a copy of Gilead but like your copy of Housekeeping it is just there on the shelf never being looked at let alone read.I think its the knowledge about the religious content that is the deterrent for me. Really I dont know why I just dont give it away now….

    • *chuckle* It’s going to keep waving to you now…

  16. I really really didn’t like this one. All this water all the time. I didn’t understand where she wanted to take us. I couldn’t be interested in the characters or their fate. And the language was difficult, too ornate.
    Bref, a rather painful read. Billet on my blog. 😉

    • Hi Emma – I love your review, and the conversation too! I’ve added the link above so that others can find it too.
      *chuckle* I especially like your opening paragraph:)

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