• Housekeeping
  • Housekeeping


3.5 55
by Marilynne Robinson

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Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone, which is set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their…  See more details below


Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone, which is set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A reissue of the contemporary feminist classic. (Sept.)
Publishers Weekly
Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle," says Ruthie, the novel's narrator. The same may be said of Becket Royce's subtle, low-keyed reading. The interwoven themes of loss and love, longing and loneliness-"the wanting never subsided"-require a cool, almost impersonal touch. Royce narrates natural and manmade catastrophe and ruin as the author offers them: with a sort of watery vagueness engulfing extraordinary events. Occasionally this leads Royce to sound sleepy or to glide over humor. But she expresses Ruthie's story without any irksome effort to sound childlike, and she avoids the pitfall of dramatizing other characters, such as the awkward sheriff, the whispery insubstantiality of Aunt Sylvie or the ladies bearing casseroles to lure Ruthie away from Aunt Sylvie and into their concept of normality. Originally published in 1980 and filmed in 1987, Housekeeping is finally on audio because of Robinson's new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. The novel holds up remarkably and painfully well, and the language remains searching and sonorous. Anatole Broyard wrote back then: "Here is a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...." And because the author's rhythms, images and diction are so original and dense, this audio is a treasure for listeners who have or haven't read the book. Based on the Picador paperback. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
The New York Times Book Review Le Anne Schreiber

So precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield.
The New York Times Anatole Broyard

Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.
Doris Lessing

I found myself reading slowly, than more slowly--this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.
The New York Times Book Review

So precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield.

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Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.61(d)

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By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1980 Marilynne Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5446-4


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. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother's house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place. He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more. So my grandfather began to read what he could find of travel literature, journals of expeditions to the mountains of Africa, to the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies. He bought a box of colors and copied a magazine lithograph of a Japanese painting of Fujiyama. He painted many more mountains, none of them identifiable, if any of them were real. They were all suave cones or mounds, single or in heaps or clusters, green, brown, or white, depending on the season, but always snowcapped, these caps being pink, white, or gold, depending on the time of day. In one large painting he had put a bell-shaped mountain in the very foreground and covered it with meticulously painted trees, each of which stood out at right angles to the ground, where it grew exactly as the nap stands out on folded plush. Every tree bore bright fruit, and showy birds nested in the boughs, and every fruit and bird was plumb with the warp in the earth. Oversized beasts, spotted and striped, could be seen running unimpeded up the right side and un-hastened down the left. Whether the genius of this painting was ignorance or fancy I never could decide.

One spring my grandfather quit his subterraneous house, walked to the railroad, and took a train west. He told the ticket agent that he wanted to go to the mountains, and the man arranged to have him put off here, which may not have been a malign joke, or a joke at all, since there are mountains, uncountable mountains, and where there are not mountains there are hills. The terrain on which the town itself is built is relatively level, having once belonged to the lake. It seems there was a time when the dimensions of things modified themselves, leaving a number of puzzling margins, as between the mountains as they must have been and the mountains as they are now, or between the lake as it once was and the lake as it is now. Sometimes in the spring the old lake will return. One will open a cellar door to wading boots floating tallowy soles up and planks and buckets bumping at the threshold, the stairway gone from sight after the second step. The earth will brim, the soil will become mud and then silty water, and the grass will stand in chill water to its tips. Our house was at the edge of town on a little hill, so we rarely had more than a black pool in our cellar, with a few skeletal insects skidding around on it. A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.

My grandfather had a job with the railroad by the time he reached his stop. It seems he was befriended by a conductor of more than ordinary influence. The job was not an especially good one. He was a watchman, or perhaps a signalman. At any rate, he went to work at nightfall and walked around until dawn, carrying a lamp. But he was a dutiful and industrious worker, and bound to rise. In no more than a decade he was supervising the loading and unloading of livestock and freight, and in another six years he was assistant to the stationmaster. He held this post for two years, when, as he was returning from some business in Spokane, his mortal and professional careers ended in a spectacular derailment.

Though it was reported in newspapers as far away as Denver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock. A porter and a waiter who were standing at the railing at the rear of the caboose discussing personal matters (they were distantly related) survived, but they were not really witnesses in any sense, for the equally sound reasons that the darkness was impenetrable to any eye and that they had been standing at the end of the train looking back.

People came down to the water's edge, carrying lamps. Most of them stood on the shore, where in time they built a fire. But some of the taller boys and younger men walked out on the railroad bridge with ropes and lanterns. Two or three covered themselves with black grease and tied themselves up in rope harnesses, and the others lowered them down into the water at the place where the porter and the waiter thought the train must have disappeared. After two minutes timed on a stopwatch, the ropes were pulled in again and the divers walked stiff-legged up the pilings, were freed from their ropes and wrapped in blankets. The water was perilously cold.

Till it was dawn the divers swung down from the bridge and walked, or were dragged, up again. A suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce were all they retrieved. Some of the divers remembered pushing past debris as they swam down into the water, but the debris must have sunk again, or drifted away in the dark. By the time they stopped hoping to find passengers, there was nothing else to be saved, no relics but three, and one of them perishable. They began to speculate that this was not after all the place where the train left the bridge. There were questions about how the train would move through the water. Would it sink like a stone despite its speed, or slide like an eel despite its weight? If it did leave the tracks here, perhaps it came to rest a hundred feet ahead. Or again it might have rolled or slid when it struck bottom, since the bridge pilings were set in the crest of a chain of flooded hills, which on one side formed the wall of a broad valley (there was another chain of hills twenty miles north, some of them islands) and on the other side fell away in cliffs. Apparently these hills were the bank of still another lake, and were made of some brittle stone which had been mined by the water and fallen sheerly away. If the train had gone over on the south side (the testimony of the porter and the waiter was that it had, but by this time they were credited very little) and had slid or rolled once or twice, it might have fallen again, farther and much longer.

After a while some of the younger boys came out on the bridge and began to jump off, at first cautiously and then almost exuberantly, with whoops of fear. When the sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. It became colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grew bright as tin. The surface of the lake was very still. As the boys' feet struck the water, there was a slight sound of rupture. Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on the waves they made and, when the water was calm again, knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection. One of the boys swam out forty feet from the bridge and then down to the old lake, feeling his way down the wall, down the blind, breathless stone, headfirst, and then pushing out from the foot. But the thought of where he was suddenly terrified him, and he leaped toward the air, brushing something with his leg as he did. He reached down and put his hand on a perfectly smooth surface, parallel to the bottom, but, he thought, seven or eight feet above it. A window. The train had landed on its side. He could not reach it a second time. The water bore him up. He said only that smooth surface, of all the things he touched, was not overgrown or hovered about by a cloud of something loose, like silt. This boy was an ingenious liar, a lonely boy with a boundless desire to ingratiate himself. His story was neither believed nor disbelieved.

By the time he had swum back to the bridge and was pulled up and had told the men there where he had been, the water was becoming dull and opaque, like cooling wax. Shivers flew when a swimmer surfaced, and the membrane of ice that formed where the ice was torn looked new, glassy, and black. All the swimmers came in. By evening the lake there had sealed itself over.

This catastrophe left three new widows in Fingerbone: my grandmother, and the wives of two elderly brothers who owned a dry-goods store. These two old women had lived in Fingerbone thirty years or more, but they left, one to live with a married daughter in North Dakota and the other to find any friends or kin in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, which she had left as a bride. They said they could no longer live by the lake. They said the wind smelled of it, and they could taste it in the drinking water, and they could not abide the smell, the taste, or the sight of it. They did not wait for the memorial service and rearing of the commemorative stone, when scores of mourners and sightseers, led by three officers of the railroad, walked out on the bridge between handrails mounted for the occasion, and dropped wreaths on the ice.

It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.

It seems that my grandmother did not consider leaving. She had lived her whole life in Fingerbone. And though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldom thought of it, she was a religious woman. That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting. She accepted the idea that at some time she and my grandfather would meet and take up their lives again, without the worry of money, in a milder climate. She hoped that he would somehow have acquired a little more stability and common sense. With him this had so far not been an effect of age, and she distrusted the idea of transfiguration. The bitter thing about his death, since she had a house and a pension and the children were almost grown, was that it seemed to her a kind of defection, not altogether unanticipated. How many times had she waked in the morning to find him gone? And sometimes for whole days he would walk around singing to himself in a thin voice, and speak to her and his children as a very civil man would speak to strangers. And now he had vanished finally. When they were reunited, she hoped he would be changed, substantially changed, but she did not set her heart on it. Musing thus, she set out upon her widowhood, and became altogether as good a widow as she had been a wife.

After their father's death, the girls hovered around her, watched everything she did, followed her through the house, got in her way. Molly was sixteen that winter; Helen, my mother, was fifteen; and Sylvie was thirteen. When their mother sat down with her mending, they would settle themselves around her on the floor, trying to be comfortable, with their heads propped against her knees or her chair, restless as young children. They would pull fringe off the rug, pleat her hem, pummel one another sometimes, while they talked indolently about school or worked out the endless minor complaints and accusations that arose among them. After a while they would turn on the radio and start brushing Sylvie's hair, which was light brown and heavy and hung down to her waist. The older girls were expert at building it into pompadours with ringlets at ear and nape. Sylvie crossed her legs at the ankles and read magazines. When she got sleepy she would go off to her room and take a nap, and come down to supper with her gorgeous hair rumpled and awry. Nothing could induce vanity in her.

When suppertime came, they would follow their mother into the kitchen, set the table, lift the lids off the pans. And then they would sit around the table and eat together, Molly and Helen fastidious, Sylvie with milk on her lip. Even then, in the bright kitchen with white curtains screening out the dark, their mother felt them leaning toward her, looking at her face and her hands.

Never since they were small children had they clustered about her so, and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness. It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she had felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breast, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep.

She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace. She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. Of course they pressed her and touched her as if she had just returned after an absence. Not because they were afraid she would vanish as their father had done, but because his sudden vanishing had made them aware of her.

When she had been married a little while, she concluded that love was half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate. Once, while they were still childless, Edmund had found a pocket watch on the shore. The case and the crystal were undamaged, but the works were nearly consumed by rust. He opened the watch and emptied it, and where the face had been he fitted a circle of paper on which he had painted two seahorses. He gave it to her as a pendant, with a chain through it, but she hardly ever wore it because the chain was too short to allow her to look at the seahorses comfortably. She worried that it would be damaged on her belt or in her pocket. For perhaps a week she carried the watch wherever she went, even across the room, and it was not because Edmund had made it for her, or because the painting was less vivid and awkward than his paintings usually were, but because the seahorses themselves were so arch, so antic and heraldic, and armored in the husks of insects. It was the seahorses themselves that she wanted to see as soon as she took her eyes away, and that she wanted to see even when she was looking at them. The wanting never subsided until something — a quarrel, a visit — took her attention away. In the same way her daughters would touch her and watch her and follow her, for a while.

Sometimes they cried out at night, small thin cries that never woke them. The sound would stop as she started up the stairs, however softly, and when she reached their rooms she would find them all quietly asleep, the source of the cry hiding in silence, like a cricket. Just her coming was enough to still the creature.


Excerpted from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 1980 Marilynne Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Housekeeping 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading one of the only novels I had started and not finished. I was supposed to read it for a Philosophy of Literature course I took during my undergraduate studies and during this failed effort I found this to be the most boring book in the world and couldn't get past the first 20 pages (of only 219 pages!) At the time I confessed to this in class and found that I wasn't alone. However, the interesting thing was that it was all the males in the room that found it so boring and all the females who found it so intriguing. Now, let me immediately say I don't think this has anything to do with the fact that it is titled housekeeping. However, at the time we talked in class a great deal about the difference between a novel with such a feminine perspective and voice and the more numerous novels with a decidedly masculine voice and tone, regardless of the author's gender. I think the most distinctive difference between this novel and most novels I've read is the pace. It is very, very slow and methodical. The cover heralds the praise it received from the New York Times Book Review: 'so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure that it might yield.' I would agree. What I mistook in my first stalled out attempt to read this novel as clunky, boring details were in fact the careful groundwork of great storytelling. Nearly every dislike I had for this book was disproved during my second read. This book accomplishes an integral task of a successful novel, which is that the form of the storytelling reflects the world of the characters and causes the reader to experience the character's world in the same way. Years ago I criticized the book for doling out details in a stutter-stop fashion, but as I reread it now I realized that this is exactly how the characters matured and learned about these same things. Another gripe I had initially was of the pace, but this I think in reality just drives home how dull and slow the narrator's childhood and path into adulthood was. The act of housekeeping has so many meanings throughout the text that I don't want to spoil any of them, but I found it to be a useful touchstone as I followed the young sisters through adolescence in a small, boring, little town years ago. Overall, the story is very compelling and chapter after chapter the plight of the women whose lives this novel revolves around delve ever deeper into sadness and loneliness. However, it is in this complete isolation that the protagonist finds some semblance of happiness and peace. I would definitely suggest this book to anyone who has an open mind and enjoys a well-crafted novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The work that it took to get through this novel was SERIOUS!!! Another reviewer stated that it's like each sentence is a poem within itself. However, it's not a's a novel and reading pages after pages of paragraphs full of that style of writing can be too much for the average joe. At times I actually read some of the sentences outloud to my friends and when finished, they looked back at me with shocked faces. The story gets more interesting as it goes along but the amount of work it took to get there isn't worth it. I do not recommend this book to anyone who does not have 2 hours to read one page.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having read Gilead prior, I was acquainted with Robinson's prose, immense and intricate and bearing the force of many oceans through the perfect interweaving of words. However, nothing could have prepared me for the impact of this story. As while reading Gilead, there were many moments during Housekeeping when I felt I would collapse under it. Few writers of any era can hold up to a comparison with Robinson's gentle ability to weave everything important into one perfectly crafted sentence and to together weave every perfectly crafted sentence into a tapestry of shimmering beauty and stark sorrow and dark, soothing uncertainty. Housekeeping evokes from the reader's heart and mind the deepest archetypes of love and family and companionship and abandonment of fear and desolation and the beauty beneath them of coming of age and realizing the unique solitude in which we all exist together, yet as separately as water and air. Time and place, physical topography and elemental composition merge to create the spirits of the characters, and ultimately, the inexorable permanence of all life is joined with the knowledge of transience the result is a masterpiece for which no prize, no title, will ever be good enough.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Robinson's style of writing makes for a slower read, like Jane Austen's books(don't care for). The wording of the story was lovely at times. I found the story a bit slow but it has stayed with me after reading it several months ago.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like words and their use in unusual sentence structure, this is definitely the book for you. If you are looking for a tight plot with a beginning, middle and end, you won't find that in this book. Plus, best read it on your Nook so that you can easily look up words (good luck in trying to guess which meaning she means).
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was flawlessly written, but unfortunately I mean that in an ambiguous or even a negative way. The author's prose style is impeccable, there is not a sentence out of place, and there are moments of great lyrical beauty, as in the description of the narrator's and her aunt's night spent out by the lake. But the author's storytelling is devoted to a story of emotional emptiness. There is little psychology or analysis of motive here, and while this is probably the author's aim, the novel as a whole falls short of the sum of its parts. Still, it cannot be faulted for anything in particular, and the prose is reasonably good. Many readers will like it, but there will be some people here and there who find it vacuous, too. I am reminded of Thomas Carlyle's comment on Tennyson's Idylls, 'the lollipops are so superlative,' and that holds here as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up several years ago for a class and never actually finished it that year--after reading it cover to cover last year, I realized that I had only just then emotionally grown into it, before having been incapable of fully recognizing the absolute beauty of 'Housekeeping.' Robinson speaks so directly to the loss and displacement within every human being that I find myself opening it again and again to look at any random page to more fully understand the complexity of human character that she so artfully conveys through her prose. The repetition of loss generationally echoes in the motion of the novel's town, its people, and even the lake which embodies the very inconstancy of life itself. Reading this book was a profoundly deep experience from a non-spritual standpoint, and yet is capable of affecting the spiritual as well, the coincidence of which few books seem to be capable. I reccommend this book to anyone who has ever felt inexplicable loss and the desire to somehow explain or justify it without necessarily applying meaning to its occurrence.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the most beautifully-written novel I have had the pleasure to read. Robinson not only maintains a tight, cohesive plot with plenty of swerves to hold attention, but she also manages to focus on serious women's issues, including societal expectations and family associations, in this story about girls growing up in small-town America. The language is exquisite, now serving as an inspiration to my own writing. The story is not a repeat of what has already been done and redone; it is fresh and so vivid in its details that I caught myself wondering if it was actually fiction or Robinson's own life! All women, and men who want to discover a few of the mysteries of what it is truly like to be women, should read this novel.
AKepsel More than 1 year ago
I love this book. I have gone back and reread it several times. Marilynne Robinson is poetic and is clearly a lover of classic literature to write a book that resembles those of Virginia Woolf. Captivating characters, macabre atmosphere and strangely relatable feelings of emptiness and the calm that comes when you've found comfort in silence. This book is to be indulged in, not read through.
a_reader25 More than 1 year ago
I first read it years ago, and then recently again. It is a beautifully written book, deep with imagery and character development. It is a treasure. The film with Christine Lahti does every page justice. You can watch it on iTunes.
Shula Mussnug More than 1 year ago
beautiful language. story wierd and depressing. wasted my money
Guest More than 1 year ago
I identified strongly with the themes of this book, loss, acceptance and transience of and in life. Every sentence is a poem within itself. Recommend it to every woman struggling with society's idea of what a woman should be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be a total waste of time; kept reading it in hopes it would get better since it has some good reviews, but ended up totally disappointed. It's depressing, boring, and the subject matter is totally blah. Normally I pass my bookson to others to enjoy, but I'll be tossing this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a complete waste of time.  It was the only book that no one in our book club liked.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book bored me to tears! The only reason I gave it one star is because the description of the story did manage to lure me in. However, upon beginning the book, I couldn't stay focused. Mainly because it read like very long and overly drawn out poetry,and I've never been a fan of poetry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An unusual story about an unusual family. Well, not a family we are familiar with. Great metaphors and insights. Same author of "Giliad", and from reading them both, you'd never believe it was the same gifted author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you love beautiful, descriptive writing -- This was wonderful -- If you love action-oriented murder mysteries, this may not be for you -- It is simply a story of two sisters in difficult life circumstances, and how they adapt and grow. It is somewhat short (150 pages), but it drew me in from the first word.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tiresome and maudlin. However, the language is beautiful. I can understand why this won an award. It just is not a very interesting story. Full of beautiful description but little in the way of interesting plot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very well written. The story was interesting, and the writer was light with the story line. It was a pleasure to read. I would definitely recommend this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
marilynne robinson's writing is beautiful, as is the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago