Housekeeping

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Overview

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 ...
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Housekeeping

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Overview

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.

Marilyn Robinson's acclaimed coming of age story set in Idaho mountain lake country.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A reissue of the contemporary feminist classic. Sept.
Hamill
An often comic novel that has become a certifiable classic. Her name is Ruth and she has the eye and ear of a poet.
Hungry Mind Review
Charles McGrath
....The language is so precise, so distilled and so beautiful one does not want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience. -- The New York Times Books of the Century
From the Publisher

"So precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield."
--Le Anne Schreiber, The New York Times Book Review
"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."
--Anatole Broyard, The New York Times
"I found myself reading slowly, than more slowly—this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight."
--Doris Lessing

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615533909
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/1/2004
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Marilynne Robinson

MARILYNNE ROBINSON is the author of the novel Gilead and two books of nonfiction, Mother Country and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Biography

For someone who has labored long in the literary vineyard, Marilynne Robinson has produced a remarkably slim oeuvre. However, in this case, quality clearly trumps quantity. Her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, snagged the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Twenty-four years later, her follow-up novel, Gilead, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. And in between, her controversial extended essay Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989) was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Robinson is far from indolent. She teaches at several colleges and has written several articles for Harper's, Paris Review, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Still, one wonders -- especially in the face of her great critical acclaim -- why she hasn't produced more full-length works. When asked about these extended periods of literary dormancy, Robinson told Barnes & Noble.com, "I feel as if I have to locate my own thinking landscape... I have to do that by reading -- basically trying to get outside the set of assumptions that sometimes seems so small or inappropriate to me." What that entails is working through various ideas that often don't develop because, as she says, "I couldn't love them."

Still, occasionally Robinson is able to salvage something important from the detritus -- for example, Gilead's central character, Reverend John Ames. "I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with," Robinson explains. "There was a character whom I intended as a minor character... he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different -- he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place."

This tendency of Robinson's to regard her characters as living, thinking beings may help to explain why her fictional output is so small. While some authors feel a deep compulsion to write daily, approaching writing as a job, Robinson depends on inspiration which often comes from the characters themselves. She explains, "I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do -- whose voice tells me how to write the novel."

As if to prove her point, in 2008, Robinson crafted the luminous novel Home around secondary characters from Gilead: John Ames's closest friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his reprobate son Jack. Paying Robinson the ultimate compliment, Kirkus Reviews declared that the novel "[c]omes astonishingly close to matching its amazing predecessor in beauty and power."

However, the deeply spiritual Robinson is motivated by a more personal directive than the desire for critical praise or bestsellerdom. Like the writing of Willa Cather -- or, more contemporaneously, Annie Dillard -- her novels are suffused with themes of faith, atonement, and redemption. She equates writing to prayer because "it's exploratory and you engage in it in the hope of having another perspective or seeing beyond what is initially obvious or apparent to you." To this sentiment, Robinson's many devoted fans can only add: Amen.

Good To Know

Robinson doesn't just address religion in her writing. She serves as a deacon at the Congregational Church to which she belongs.

One might think that winning a Pulitzer Prize could easily go to a writer's head, but Robinson continues to approach her work with surprising humility. In fact, her advice to aspiring writers is to always "assume your readers are smarter than you are."

Robinson is no stranger to controversy. Mother Country, her indictment of the destruction of the environment and those who feign to protect it, has raised the ire of Greenpeace, which attempted to sue her British publisher for libel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Iowa City, Iowa
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 26, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sandpoint, Idaho
    1. Education:
      B.A., Brown University, 1966

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


My name is Ruth. I grew up with my youngersister, 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, ofher daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all thesegenerations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother'shouse, built for her by her husband, EdmundFoster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped thisworld years before I entered it. It was he who put usdown in this unlikely place. He had grown up in theMiddle West, in a house dug out of the ground, withwindows just at earth level and just at eye level, so thatfrom without, the house was a mere mound, no more ahuman stronghold than a grave, and from within, theperfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortenedthe view so severely that the horizon seemedto circumscribe the sod house and nothing more. Somy grandfather began to read what he could find oftravel literature, journals of expeditions to the mountainsof Africa, to the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas,the Rockies. He bought a box of colors and copied amagazine 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 suavecones or mounds, single or in heaps or clusters, green,brown, or white, depending on the season, but alwayssnowcapped, these caps being pink, white, or gold, dependingon the time of day. In one large painting he hadput a bell-shaped mountain in the very foreground andcovered it with meticulously painted trees, each of whichstood out at right angles to the ground, where it grewexactly as the nap stands outon folded plush. Every treebore bright fruit, and showy birds nested in the boughs,and every fruit and bird was plumb with the warp in theearth. Oversized beasts, spotted and striped, could beseen running unimpeded up the right side and unhasteneddown the left. Whether the genius of thispainting was ignorance or fancy I never could decide.

    One spring my grandfather quit his subterraneoushouse, walked to the railroad, and took a train west. Hetold 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, andwhere there are not mountains there are hills. The terrainon which the town itself is built is relatively level,having once belonged to the lake. It seems there was atime when the dimensions of things modified themselves,leaving a number of puzzling margins, as betweenthe mountains as they must have been and the mountainsas they are now, or between the lake as it once wasand the lake as it is now. Sometimes in the spring theold lake will return. One will open a cellar door to wadingboots floating tallowy soles up and planks andbuckets bumping at the threshold, the stairway gonefrom sight after the second step. The earth will brim,the soil will become mud and then silty water, and thegrass will stand in chill water to its tips. Our house wasat the edge of town on a little hill, so we rarely had morethan a black pool in our cellar, with a few skeletal insectsskidding around on it. A narrow pond would form in theorchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leavesand fallen branches, all around it black leaves anddrenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight asan image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering facesand our cold hands.


My grandfather had a job with the railroad bythe time he reached his stop. It seems he was befriendedby a conductor of more than ordinary influence. The jobwas not an especially good one. He was a watchman, orperhaps a signalman. At any rate, he went to work atnightfall and walked around until dawn, carrying a lamp.But he was a dutiful and industrious worker, and boundto rise. In no more than a decade he was supervising theloading and unloading of livestock and freight, and inanother six years he was assistant to the stationmaster.He held this post for two years, when, as he was returningfrom some business in Spokane, his mortal and professionalcareers ended in a spectacular derailment.

    Though it was reported in newspapers as far away asDenver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular,because no one saw it happen. The disaster tookplace midway through a moonless night. The train,which was black and sleek and elegant, and was calledthe Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across thebridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake andthen the rest of the train slid after it into the water likea weasel sliding off a rock. A porter and a waiter whowere standing at the railing at the rear of the caboosediscussing 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 impenetrableto any eye and that they had been standingat the end of the train looking back.


People came down to the water's edge, carryinglamps. Most of them stood on the shore, where in timethey built a fire. But some of the taller boys and youngermen walked out on the railroad bridge with ropes andlanterns. Two or three covered themselves with blackgrease and tied themselves up in rope harnesses, and theothers lowered them down into the water at the placewhere the porter and the waiter thought the train musthave disappeared. After two minutes timed on a stopwatch,the ropes were pulled in again and the diverswalked stiff-legged up the pilings, were freed from theirropes and wrapped in blankets. The water was perilouslycold.

    Till it was dawn the divers swung down from thebridge 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 asthey swam down into the water, but the debris musthave sunk again, or drifted away in the dark. By the timethey stopped hoping to find passengers, there was nothingelse to be saved, no relics but three, and one of themperishable. They began to speculate that this was notafter all the place where the train left the bridge. Therewere questions about how the train would move throughthe water. Would it sink like a stone despite its speed,or slide like an eel despite its weight? If it did leave thetracks here, perhaps it came to rest a hundred feet ahead.Or again it might have rolled or slid when it struckbottom, since the bridge pilings were set in the crest ofa chain of flooded hills, which on one side formed thewall of a broad valley (there was another chain of hillstwenty miles north, some of them islands) and on theother side fell away in cliffs. Apparently these hills werethe bank of still another lake, and were made of somebrittle stone which had been mined by the water andfallen sheerly away. If the train had gone over on thesouth side (the testimony of the porter and the waiterwas that it had, but by this time they were credited verylittle) and had slid or rolled once or twice, it might havefallen again, farther and much longer.

    After a while some of the younger boys came out onthe bridge and began to jump off, at first cautiously andthen almost exuberantly, with whoops of fear. Whenthe sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. Itbecame colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grewbright as tin. The surface of the lake was very still. Asthe boys' feet struck the water, there was a slight soundof rupture. Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on thewaves they made and, when the water was calm again,knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection. One of theboys swam out forty feet from the bridge and then downto the old lake, feeling his way down the wall, down theblind, breathless stone, headfirst, and then pushing outfrom the foot. But the thought of where he was suddenlyterrified him, and he leaped toward the air, brushingsomething with his leg as he did. He reached down andput his hand on a perfectly smooth surface, parallel tothe bottom, but, he thought, seven or eight feet above it.A window. The train had landed on its side. He could notreach it a second time. The water bore him up. He saidonly that smooth surface, of all the things he touched,was not overgrown or hovered about by a cloud ofsomething 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 waspulled up and had told the men there where he hadbeen, the water was becoming dull and opaque, likecooling wax. Shivers flew when a swimmer surfaced, andthe membrane of ice that formed where the ice wastorn looked new, glassy, and black. All the swimmerscame 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 elderlybrothers who owned a dry-goods store. These two oldwomen had lived in Fingerbone thirty years or more,but they left, one to live with a married daughter inNorth Dakota and the other to find any friends or kinin Sewickley, Pennsylvania, which she had left as a bride.They said they could no longer live by the lake. Theysaid the wind smelled of it, and they could taste it inthe drinking water, and they could not abide the smell,the taste, or the sight of it. They did not wait for thememorial service and rearing of the commemorativestone, when scores of mourners and sightseers, led bythree officers of the railroad, walked out on the bridgebetween handrails mounted for the occasion, anddropped wreaths on the ice.

    It is true that one is always aware of the lake inFingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airlesswaters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring,cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows butthat same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, andall the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyedby any other element. At the foundation is theold lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogetherblack. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of chartsand photographs, which is permeated by sunlight andsustains green life and innumerable fish, and in whichone can look down in the shadow of a dock and seestony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground.And above that, the lake that rises in the spring andturns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above thatthe water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath ofan animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.

    It seems that my grandmother did not considerleaving. She had lived her whole life in Fingerbone.And though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldomthought of it, she was a religious woman. That is tosay that she conceived of life as a road down whichone traveled, an easy enough road through a broadcountry, and that one's destination was there fromthe very beginning, a measured distance away, standingin the ordinary light like some plain house where onewent in and was greeted by respectable people and wasshown to a room where everything one had ever lost orput aside was gathered together, waiting. She acceptedthe idea that at some time she and my grandfatherwould meet and take up their lives again, without theworry of money, in a milder climate. She hoped that hewould somehow have acquired a little more stability andcommon sense. With him this had so far not been aneffect of age, and she distrusted the idea of transfiguration.The bitter thing about his death, since she had ahouse and a pension and the children were almost grown,was that it seemed to her a kind of defection, not altogetherunanticipated. How many times had she wakedin the morning to find him gone? And sometimes forwhole days he would walk around singing to himself ina thin voice, and speak to her and his children as a verycivil man would speak to strangers. And now he hadvanished finally. When they were reunited, she hoped hewould be changed, substantially changed, but she didnot set her heart on it. Musing thus, she set out uponher widowhood, and became altogether as good a widowas she had been a wife.


After their father's death, the girls hoveredaround her, watched everything she did, followed herthrough the house, got in her way. Molly was sixteenthat winter; Helen, my mother, was fifteen; and Sylviewas thirteen. When their mother sat down with hermending, they would settle themselves around her on thefloor, trying to be comfortable, with their heads proppedagainst her knees or her chair, restless as young children.They would pull fringe off the rug, pleat her hem, pummelone another sometimes, while they talked indolentlyabout school or worked out the endless minor complaintsand accusations that arose among them. After a whilethey would turn on the radio and start brushing Sylvie'shair, which was light brown and heavy and hung downto her waist. The older girls were expert at building itinto pompadours with ringlets at ear and nape. Sylviecrossed her legs at the ankles and read magazines. Whenshe got sleepy she would go off to her room and take anap, and come down to supper with her gorgeous hairrumpled and awry. Nothing could induce vanity in her.

    When suppertime came, they would follow theirmother into the kitchen, set the table, lift the lids offthe pans. And then they would sit around the table andeat together, Molly and Helen fastidious, Sylvie withmilk on her lip. Even then, in the bright kitchen withwhite curtains screening out the dark, their mother feltthem leaning toward her, looking at her face and herhands.

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

    She had always known a thousand ways to circle themall around with what must have seemed like grace. Sheknew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and herjelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies andapplesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase onthe piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the bloomsripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinesejar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Herchildren slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts,and in the morning her curtains filled with light the waysails fill with wind. Of course they pressed her andtouched her as if she had just returned after an absence.Not because they were afraid she would vanish as theirfather had done, but because his sudden vanishing hadmade them aware of her.

    When she had been married a little while, she concludedthat love was half a longing of a kind that possessiondid nothing to mitigate. Once, while they were stillchildless, Edmund had found a pocket watch on theshore. The case and the crystal were undamaged, but theworks were nearly consumed by rust. He opened thewatch and emptied it, and where the face had been hefitted a circle of paper on which he had painted twoseahorses. He gave it to her as a pendant, with a chainthrough it, but she hardly ever wore it because the chainwas too short to allow her to look at the seahorses comfortably.She worried that it would be damaged on herbelt or in her pocket. For perhaps a week she carriedthe watch wherever she went, even across the room, andit was not because Edmund had made it for her, or becausethe painting was less vivid and awkward than hispaintings usually were, but because the seahorses themselveswere so arch, so antic and heraldic, and armoredin the husks of insects. It was the seahorses themselvesthat she wanted to see as soon as she took her eyes away,and that she wanted to see even when she was looking atthem. The wanting never subsided until something—aquarrel, a visit—took her attention away. In the sameway her daughters would touch her and watch her andfollow her, for a while.

    Sometimes they cried out at night, small thin criesthat never woke them. The sound would stop as shestarted up the stairs, however softly, and when shereached their rooms she would find them all quietlyasleep, the source of the cry hiding in silence, like acricket. Just her coming was enough to still the creature.

    The years between her husband's death and her eldestdaughter's leaving home were, in fact, years of almostperfect serenity. My grandfather had sometimes spokenof disappointment. With him gone they were cut freefrom the troublesome possibility of success, recognition,advancement. They had no reason to look forward, nothingto regret. Their lives spun off the tilting world likethread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilactime, apple time. If heaven was to be this world purgedof disaster and nuisance, if immortality was to be thislife held in poise and arrest, and if this world purgedand this life unconsuming could be thought of as worldand life restored to their proper natures, it is no wonderthat five serene, eventless years lulled my grandmotherinto forgetting what she should never have forgotten. Sixmonths before Molly left she was already completelychanged. She had become overtly religious. She practicedhymns on the piano, and mailed fat letters to missionarysocieties, in which she included accounts of her recentconversion and copies of two lengthy poems, one on theResurrection and another on the march of Christ'slegions through the world. I have seen these poems. Thesecond speaks very warmly of pagans, and especially ofmissionaries, "... the angels come to roll away / Thestone that seals their tomb."

(Continues...)


Excerpted from HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 1980 by Marilynne Robinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Reading Group Guide

"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." -- Anatole Broyard, The New York Times

About this Guide
This guide is intended to enrich your experience of reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. When it was first published in 1981, it was hailed by Le Anne Schreiber in The New York Times Book Review as one of the most original and striking novels of its time: "Marilynne Robinson has written a first novel that one reads as slowly as poetry -- and for the same reason: the Language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience."

Ruth, the young narrator of Housekeeping, is taken with her sister, Lucille, to the small Idaho town of Fingerbone to live with their grandmother. They are brought by their mother, Helen, who leaves them on the porch and then drives her car into the town lake where her own father drowned years before. The girls are raised by a series of relatives, and finally come under the care of Sylvie, their aunt, an elusive transient who agrees to return to Fingerbone to make a home for them. At first her eccentricities seem unimportant to the girls, but as time goes on, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Lucille determines that she will lead a conventional life, and eventually separates herself from her peculiar aunt. The dreamy, inarticulate Ruth, grief-stricken by the loss of her mother and increasingly detached from the life of the surrounding community, responds to Sylvie's tragic yet powerful and poetic vision of the world and, in the end, joins her in her life of wandering. Housekeeping is a haunting and unforgettable work of art about the transitory nature of love and the impermanence of all things.

Questions for Discussions
1. Why do you think Marilynne Robinson has chosen Housekeeping as the title for her novel? What does the concept of housekeeping mean to Sylvie? To the girls' grandmother? To Lucille? Why is the idea of housekeeping such an important one in this book?

2. How do the geography and character of Fingerbone mold and shape the lives of the people who live there? What does Ruth mean when she says that Fingerbone was "chastened" (p. 62)? How does the fact that Fingerbone is "shallow-rooted" (p. 177), a "meager and difficult place" (p. 178), affect Ruth and her family?

3. "So long as you look after your health," their grandmother tells Ruth and Lucille, "and own the roof above your head, you're as safe as anyone can be, God willing" (p. 27). Do the experiences of her daughters and granddaughters confirm or refute this opinion?

4. Do you find that the three generations of Foster women -- the grandmother, Sylvie and her sisters, and Ruth and Lucille -- are certain unusual or eccentric qualities? Do they have similar attitudes toward men and marriage? Do you notice a family resemblance between these women? Why might they, as a family, have kept themselves isolated from the rest of the community?

5. After the death of Edmund Foster, the women of the Foster family inhabit a world entirely removed from masculine influence. What effect does this have on their lives and characters? Why do you think Sylvie and Helen eventually reject their own husbands so completely?

6. Why do you think that Sylvie ventured out onto the railroad bridge (p. 81)? Was it from simple curiosity, as she assures the girls, or is it possible that she was actually thinking of killing herself, of dying in the lake like her sister and father? Where else in the novel can you find images of drowning?

7. Lucille, Ruth believes, thinks that Ruth and Sylvie are alike. Do you find that Ruth is really like Sylvie, or does she come to resemble her during the course of the story? If so, why?

8. At what point in the novel do you begin to notice the differences between Ruth and Lucille? Is Lucille's wish for a 'normal' life evident early in the story, or does it take hold only as she reaches adolescence? What is the significance of Ruth's and Lucille's dreams (pp. 118-20)? What does each dream say about the dreamer's character and eventual destiny?

9. Housekeeping is told through Ruth's very distinctive point of view. Do you feel, as she seems to, that Lucille's defection from the family unit was an act of emotional dishonesty and betrayal? Or do you think that Lucille's decision was the only way she could save herself. What is Lucille's attitude toward Ruth? Does Lucille purposely leave Ruth behind, or does she try to save her?

10. If you were one of Sylvie's acquaintances or neighbors, you might consider her mad. After seeing her through Ruth's eyes, do you believe that she is in fact mad? Which of the characters in the book do you think are mad? Which ones do you think are sane?

11. What happens to Ruth during the day she spends alone at the abandoned house in the mountains (chap. 8)? How does this experience affect the direction she will take in life? How does her relationship with Sylvie change at this point?

12. Do you agree with the sheriff that Ruth would be better off separated from Sylvie, in a "normal" household? Do you believe that if he were to succeed in separating her from Sylvie at this point, Ruth would grow up to lead a normal life?

13. "Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings" (p. 116). What is Ruth saying in the long paragraph which contains this sentence, and how does this central idea of illusion, the unreality of reality, contribute to her leaving Fingerbone with Sylvie?

14. Do you think that Ruth would have become a transient had she never met Sylvie? When Ruth leaves Fingerbone with Sylvie at the end of the novel, is it wittingly or unwittingly?

15. One of the lessons Ruth has learned from her early life, and from Sylvie, is that all things are impermanent: "the appearance of relative sotidity in my grandmothers house was deceptive . . . It is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing" (pp. 158-59). And, "once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise" p. 157). Do you find this point of view convincing? Why has Lucille, obviously an intelligent young woman, not received the same message from their shared childhood?

16. Ruth's life has been permanently shaped by her grief at her mothers abandonment and death. Sylvie and Helen, too, suffered from the shocking loss of a parent. "Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it," Ruth reflects (p. 194). Do you see the events of Housekeeping as springing primarily from grief and loss? Can the novel be seen as a story about the different ways in which people cope, or fail to cope, with grief?

17. "Even the illusion of perimeters fails when families are separated" (p. 198). What does the concept of "family" mean to the various members of the Foster family? To which people is the family most important, and why is it so overwhelmingly important to them? Which of the characters is ultimately willing to sacrifice the family and his or her own place within it?

18. Why do Sylvie and Ruth attempt to burn down the house at the end of the novel?

About the Author
Marilynne Robinson was born and raised in Idaho, where her family has lived for several generations. She recieved a B.A. from Brown University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington in 1977. Housekeeping, her first novel, was published in 1981 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the American Academy and Institute's Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. Mother Country, an examination of Great Britain's role in radioactive environmental pollution, was published in 1989. Robinson lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her family.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 49 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(23)

4 Star

(6)

3 Star

(10)

2 Star

(5)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 49 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Definitely Not For the Average Joe!

    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 poem...it'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.

    9 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2006

    More Interesting than You'd Think!

    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.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2007

    A reviewer

    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.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2007

    flawless but vacuous

    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.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2005

    Lovely writing

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2012

    You might want to rent the movie first.

    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).

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 31, 2011

    depressing

    beautiful language. story wierd and depressing. wasted my money

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2005

    The most beautiful novel I have ever read

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2003

    Housekeeping Sweeps the Dust out of Fiction

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2012

    I love this book. I have gone back and reread it several times.

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 27, 2011

    One of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2005

    I liked it.

    This story was ok. I have read better. I had to read it for school, and i found it diffiucult to answer the required questions on this book. On the other hand, it was peaceful and i liked that.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2004

    One of My Favorites

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2014

    Great story for book club discussion

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2014

    Just beautiful!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2014

    Maudlin

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2013

    Graceful writing

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    a favorite

    marilynne robinson's writing is beautiful, as is the story.

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  • Posted August 1, 2013

    Surprising Perspective

    Didn't know if I was going to like this story, since the setting is set in the earlier 1900s and in poor, rather depressing times. Nothing exciting going on here, just life as it was. The story centers around 2 young girls, who lose both parents and end up being raised by their Grandmother, who dies, then their drifter Aunt, who comes to look after them. The Aunt tries to conform to what the locals expect of a proper family but, because she remains true to herself, she can't quite fit in. One of her nieces decides she wants "normal" and leaves to live w/someone else in town. But the younger one stays w/the aunt, feels comfortable with her. They try to be what is expected of them and follow the rules so they can continue to live in their home, but are judged against society's standards and fall short. Thus, they have to leave their home and town to live their own lives the way they want. I doubt they would be judged differently today. How sad we determine how everyone "should" be.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    Loved it!

    Walls never fails to provide a good read

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