The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel

The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel

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by Yoko Ogawa
     
 

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He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem—ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is an astute young Housekeeper—with a ten-year-old son—who is hired to care for the Professor.
And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other

Overview

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem—ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is an astute young Housekeeper—with a ten-year-old son—who is hired to care for the Professor.
And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor's mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities—like the Housekeeper's shoe size—and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away. Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
This is a delicate, unhurried story about the friendship that develops between a brain-injured mathematician and a woman who comes every day to prepare his meals. None of the characters is ever named. Nothing romantic or even dramatic ever happens. And there is a lot of conversation about math. Can you hear the marketing team in New York starting to cry? And yet The Housekeeper and the Professor is strangely charming, flecked with enough wit and mystery to keep us engaged throughout.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Ogawa (The Diving Pool) weaves a poignant tale of beauty, heart and sorrow in her exquisite new novel. Narrated by the Housekeeper, the characters are known only as the Professor and Root, the Housekeeper's 10-year-old son, nicknamed by the Professor because the shape of his hair and head remind the Professor of the square root symbol. A brilliant mathematician, the Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and his short-term memory only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his theorems and favorite baseball players, but the Housekeeper must reintroduce herself every morning, sometimes several times a day. The Professor, who adores Root, is able to connect with the child through baseball, and the Housekeeper learns how to work with him through the memory lapses until they can come together on common ground, at least for 80 minutes. In this gorgeous tale, Ogawa lifts the window shade to allow readers to observe the characters for a short while, then closes the shade. Snyder-who also translated Pool-brings a delicate and precise hand to the translation. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
From Japanese author Ogawa (The Diving Pool, 2008), the story of a struggling single mother who takes a job looking after an elderly mathematician with an unusual disability. When the Akebono Housekeeping Agency dispatches the unnamed heroine to the shabby cottage occupied by the titular academic, there is little reason to think she would last any longer than the previous nine women who briefly worked there. He's clearly not the average client. Seventeen years earlier the professor was in a devastating car accident that left him brain damaged, only able to remember 80 minutes at a time. He gets through the day solving math problems, and attaches notes to his clothes to remember what he needs to do. His memories prior to the accident, however, remain crystal clear, and he survives off the generosity of his widowed sister-in-law, on whose property he lives. Initially he's not much of a talker, but the sweet, almost childlike housekeeper takes a liking to the vulnerable old man, even as she has to reintroduce herself to him every day. He teaches her about the elegance and order of numbers-his passion-while she dotes on him like a daughter. Through his lessons she sees the unexpected poetry in math and sets about solving some problems of her own. She also introduces him to her ten-year-old son, who he nicknames "Root" because the flat top of his head reminds him of the square-root sign. The professor instantly bonds with the fatherless boy, so she and Root spend more and more time at the professor's home. The trio begins to resemble a family, with an unspoken understanding of each other that transcends language and convention. Trouble calls, though, when the sister-in-law, who has her owncomplicated history with the professor, misinterprets the housekeeper's kindness as something more devious. Ogawa's disarming exploration of an eccentric relationship reads like a fable, one that deftly balances whimsy with heartache. Simple story, well told.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429952507
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
02/03/2009
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
192
Sales rank:
45,634
File size:
417 KB

Read an Excerpt

Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless--too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers--but I don’t know how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond infinity. As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy evening in early April. My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the Professor's study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain.

The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.

"Then what happens if you take the square root of negative one?" he asked.

"So you'd need to get -1 by multiplying a number by itself?"

Root asked. He had just learned fractions at school, and it had taken a half-hour lecture from the Professor to convince him that numbers less than zero even existed, so this was quite a leap. We tried picturing the square root of negative one in our heads: v-1. The square root of 100 is 10; the square root of 16 is 4; the square root of 1 is 1. So the square root of -1 is . . .

He didn’t press us. On the contrary, he fondly studied our expressions as we mulled over the problem.

"There is no such number," I said at last, sounding rather tentative.

"Yes, there is," he said, pointing at his chest. "It's in here. It's the most discreet sort of number, so it never comes out where it can be seen. But it's here." We fell silent for a moment, trying to picture the square root of minus one in some distant, unknown place. The only sound was the rain falling outside the window. My son ran his hand over his head, as if to confirm the shape of the square root symbol.

But the Professor didn't always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request--that I help him set the timer on the toaster, for example--always began with "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but . . ." Once I’d set the dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together, as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of the Pythagorean theorem.

***

It was March of 1992 when the Akebono Housekeeping Agency first sent me to work for the Professor. At the time, I was the youngest woman registered with the agency, which served a small city on the Inland Sea, although I already had more than ten years of experience. I managed to get along with all sorts of employers, and even when I cleaned for the most difficult clients, the ones no other housekeeper would touch, I never complained. I prided myself on being a true professional.

In the Professor's case, it only took a glance at his client card to know that he might be trouble. A blue star was stamped on the back of the card each time a housekeeper had to be replaced, and there were already nine stars on the Professor’s card, a record during my years with the agency.

When I went for my interview, I was greeted by a slender, elegant old woman with dyed brown hair swept up in a bun. She wore a knit dress and walked with a cane.

"You will be taking care of my brother-in-law," she said. I tried to imagine why she would be responsible for her husband's brother. "None of the others have lasted long," she continued. "Which has been a terrible inconvenience for me and for my brother-in-law. We have to start again every time a new housekeeper comes. . . . The job isn't complicated. You would come Monday through Friday at 11:00 A.M., fix him lunch, clean the house, do the shopping, make dinner, and leave at 7:00 P.M. That's the extent of it."

There was something hesitant about the way she said the words brother-in-law. Her tone was polite enough, but her left hand nervously fingered her cane. Her eyes avoided mine, but occasionally I caught her casting a wary glance in my direction.

"The details are in the contract I signed with the agency. I’m simply looking for someone who can help him live a normal life, like anyone else.”

"Is your brother-in-law here?" I asked. She pointed with the cane to a cottage at the back of the garden behind the house. A red slate roof rose above a neatly pruned hedge of scarlet hawthorn.

"I must ask you not to come and go between the main house and the cottage. Your job is to care for my brother-in-law, and the cottage has a separate entrance on the north side of the property. I would prefer that you resolve any difficulties without consulting me. That's the one rule I ask you to respect." She gave a little tap with her cane.

I was used to absurd demands from my employers--that I wear a different color ribbon in my hair every day; that the water for tea be precisely 165 degrees; that I recite a little prayer every evening when Venus rose in the night sky--so the old woman’s request struck me as relatively straightforward.

"Could I meet your brother-in-law now?" I asked.

"That won't be necessary." She refused so flatly that I thought I had offended her. "If you met him today, he wouldn’t remember you tomorrow."

"I'm sorry, I don’t understand."

"He has difficulties with his memory," she said. "He's not senile; his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago he hit his head in an automobile accident. Since then, he has been unable to remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975. He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms, it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes--no more and no less." Perhaps because she had repeated this explanation so many times in the past, the old woman ran through it without pause, and with almost no sign of emotion.

How exactly does a man live with only eighty minutes of memory? I had cared for ailing clients on more than one occasion in the past, but none of that experience would be useful here. I could just picture a tenth blue star on the Professor's card.

From the main house, the cottage appeared deserted. An old-fashioned garden door was set into the hawthorn hedge, but it was secured by a rusty lock that was covered in bird droppings.

"Well then, I'll expect you to start on Monday," the old woman said, putting an end to the conversation. And that's how I came to work for the Professor.


Copyright © 2003 by Yoko Ogawa; English translation copyright 2009 by Stephen Snyder. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Yoko Ogawa's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award.


Yoko Ogawa is the author of The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and Hotel Iris. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award. Her novel The Housekeeper and the Professor has been adapted into a film, The Professor’s Beloved Equation. She lives in Ashiya, Japan, with her husband and son.

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The Housekeeper and the Professor 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book because I found the professor so endearing (perhaps because my father was also a math professor) and the loyalty shown to him by the housekeeper and her son was so touching. It was just a sweet, sweet story that provided food for thought about the fascinating possibilities inherent in numbers, the way that even the most different people can develop a bond, and the enormous role memory plays in our lives.
quietreader More than 1 year ago
This is a beautiful story about the connections between people, the time they share together and the lovely life that results from both. A wonderful book to discuss, to share with others and to enjoy on your own.
trevorscottbarton More than 1 year ago
This book is a serendipity, like a flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk. Ogawa's lowly housekeeper, broken math professor, and latchkey kid help readers explore what it means to be human - building community in the midst of loneliness, offering forgiveness in the midst of incivility, and finding hope in the midst of despair. It also introduces the wonderful worlds of math and baseball. It is a wonderful book!
Brasseur More than 1 year ago
This was a book club selection and I read it dutifully. I had hoped to be pulled in by the mathematical inquiry, but was not. And I just didn't care enough about the characters. I don't know if it's a question of translation. At times I could imagine that it was a more nuanced and elegant book in Japanese. Book club has not yet discussed it. It will be interesting to see the group's reaction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have give it as a gift several times and will encourage my Book Club to read it. It is simple, touching and memorable!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book shows that no matter what the culture, human nature is the same.The author makes each character very real, Good book for discussion.
pikagirl More than 1 year ago
Such a beautiful story, it was a truly uplifting story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book!!!!!!!!!!"""" Cool Sweet Great
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book to discuss with a reading group. I just finished this book today. I'm not a math person so I couldn't get into much of the explanation and problem-solving details but even so the idea that the Professor could still communicate with the Housekeeper and her son Root in such a complicated fashion was very well-written and a wonderful story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Disclaimer: I'm not a fan of math, but i was sure this was going to be more interesting given the possibilities of the relationships they set up. I couldn't have been more wrong, it was terribly boring. Do not waste your reading time!
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Hanami More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most, beautiful books I have ever read. It's sincere, and beautiful, and portrays people's emotions... BEAUTIFULLY. Written by Yoko Ogawa (my favorite author since childhood) - being a literary girl, as well as a math lover; this book was amazing. The end, was so beautiful, fresh, and emotional, and heartwarming; I cried. I recommend this to anyone who's looking for a good read. Though, those who are struggling with math, or do not comprehend math well - this may not be the read for you because in order for those to understand, and enjoy this book to an enjoyable level.
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theshippingnews More than 1 year ago
It has been a long time since I read a novel as beautifully humane and intelligent at The Housekeeper and the Professor. Everyone should read this book, if only to get a glimpse of what it means to live in the moment, and to do so with great grace and humility.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this on my vacation in San Francisco and read it on my 3 hour plane ride. It was a fast read and was absolutely beautiful. The story left me with great feelings, of sadness and peacefulness. It gives a slight insight to Japanese society and opens your mind to the beauty of math. Math now interests me and I have stopped groaning about "never using it in life." I definitely recommend for those who are looking for a short, nice read.
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