Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor is not a classic.  But it is one of those rare finds that starts charming and ends even more delightfully, in which nothing really bad happens to the characters and you can relax happily and observe the growing relationships.  Plus there’s math.  Really interesting, quirky math explained in a totally understandable way, that isn’t a throwaway but completely essential to the trajectory of this novel.  (How awesome is a writer who can pull that off?)

In this novel, a young housekeeper takes a new job, caring for the Professor and his small cottage.  This old man is a genius at math and has a gentle, sensitive personality, but the job has an unexpected difficulty: the Professor suffered brain damage, and his short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes before it begins to erase itself.  Thus, the housekeeper must re-introduce herself each morning to a man who cannot remember her from the day before.  The Professor’s life is small – he fears to leave the cottage and instead spends his days solving math puzzles for a mathematics journal.  He was once destined for greatness as a mathematician – his college thesis was groundbreaking – but now, the man is reduced to clipping small notes to his suits as reminders and carefully picking out carrots from the food that is prepared for him.  The housekeeper and her son, who begins spending afternoons after school at the Professor’s cottage with his mother, are the first friends the scholar has had in a long time.

We never find out any of the character’s names.  The housekeeper who narrates is never named, nor is the Professor.  Her son is known throughout the book only by the nickname the Professor gives him: Root, for the flat top of his head reminds the man of the square root sign.  This lack of specificity makes this unusual story somehow more universal, and bestows upon the novel a fairy-tale-like quality.

The real beauty of this tale lies in the relationships between the three.  Any good novelist can tell you that when writing three characters, you must consider four relationships: those between each pair, and the dynamic that occurs when all three are together.  In The Housekeeper and the Professor, each of these four relationships is patiently and delicately explored (making me wonder if a better though less catchy title would be “The Housekeeper, the Professor, and the Boy”).  The Professor, whom we first encounter as a crotchety, messy, inwardly-drawn man, slowly unfolds over the course of the novel, and it is really heart-warming to see him accept and embrace the younger woman and her son as family – especially since he must essentially restart his relationships with them every day.  For that is what the three gradually become: an unconventional family, one that all three people desperately needed.  Yet there is no sense of desperation in their growing friendships, and no hint of sexuality.  The story is innocent and beautiful.

The Professor and Root bond over a mutual love of Japanese baseball.  The Professor delights in the statistics inherent in the sport, and Root is overjoyed to have a friend with a similar interest.  The two spend many hours listening to games on the Professor’s old radio, which Root convinced the Professor to get fixed (in exchange, he solved extra math problems beyond those required for homework).  The Professor seems to have always harbored a love for children, and it’s sad to realize that before the coming of this housekeeper, he had no chance to interact with kids in many long years.  Readers quickly come to realize that the Professor would have made an amazing father, if he’d only had the chance: “The desk was too high, and Root was forced to sit up very straight as he leaned over his problem, a well-chewed pencil clutched tightly in his hand.  The Professor sat back, legs crossed and looking relaxed, and his hand drifted to his unshaven chin from time to time as he watched Root work.  He was no longer a frail old man, nor a scholar lost in his thoughts, but the rightful protector of a child” (37).  Root, for his part, adopts the Professor as a father-figure so completely that he grows angry with his mother when the housekeeper doubts the Professor’s ability to care for her son: “‘Are you mad because the Professor couldn’t dress the wound properly?’ I asked at last.  ‘No,’ said Root.  He stared at me for a moment and then he spoke so calmly it seemed as though he had completely regained control of himself.  ‘I’m mad because you didn’t trust him.  I’ll never forgive you for that’” (74).

Of course, Root does forgive his mother, and because of the Professor’s presence in their lives, he and his mother find their own relationship greatly strengthened.  As a poor single mother, the housekeeper has been, up until the events in this book, needy and unsure.  Her son took on a difficult, inappropriate supportive role, perhaps trying to make up for the empty male/father presence in their lives: “‘You’re beautiful, Momma,’ he’d say, his voice full of conviction, ‘It’ll be okay.’  This was what he always said when he comforted me.  ‘I’m a beauty?’ I would ask, and he’d say, feigning astonishment, ‘Sure you are.  Didn’t you know?’  More than once I’d pretended to be crying just to hear those words; and he’d always play along willingly’” (53).  Over the course of the novel, the housekeeper becomes confident and sure, taking on a true parental role and allowing Root to regain his position as child to be nurtured.  After purchasing tickets so that she, her son, and the Professor could attend a baseball game together, she reflected, “Root had never been to a ball game.  In fact, with the exception of a trip to the zoo with his grandmother, he had never been to a museum or a movie theater or anywhere at all.  From the time he was born, I had been obsessed with making ends meet, and somehow I had forgotten to make time to have fun with my son” (84).

Perhaps the most fun relationship is that between the Professor and the housekeeper, for it is built on the shared experience of quirky mathematics.  The Professor, an expert in whole number theory, teaches the housekeeper many theorems and equations and mathematical truths, which, to her, serve as guideposts on a journey toward all the secrets of the universe.  The Professor, distressed each morning by the coming of a woman he doesn’t remember, finds comfort in numbers and their significance.  Countless times, he asks her shoe size, or her telephone number, and she tolerantly answers these repeated questions.  In the course of their discussions, numbers are anthropomorphized, made into people that interact with each other: “I tried picturing 18 and 14, but now that I’d heard the Professor’s explanation [of abundant and deficient numbers], they were no longer simply numbers.  Eighteen secretly carried a heavy burden, while 14 fell mute in the face of its terrible lack” (45); “I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers.  Amicable numbers or twin primes [emphasis in original] had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem.  In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line” (63).  It is a touching turnaround when the housekeeper herself gets terribly worried, and this time, it is the Professor comforting her with math.

Luminous in its kindliness and simplicity, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a lovely read about family and relationships, with a fun dose of mathematical learning in a most accessible manner.  Who would have thought a return to high school mathematical principles would be so relaxing?  I highly recommend it!

Things I’m reading:
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Musicology and Difference, Ruth Solie, ed.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster
A Journal of Theomusicology (Black Sacred Music, Vol. 8, No. 1), Jon Michael Spencer, ed.

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