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Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

This novel is considered one of the top US novels of the latter part of the twentieth century and deservedly so. It is deceptively simple – basically the story of a girl growing up somewhere in the West of the United States – but is beautifully written, with wonderfully imaginative characters and a fascinating interplay between man (though, in this book, more generally woman) and nature. Indeed, though men do make an occasional appearance in this book, most of it is about women (and girls), with their relationships with men being distinctly secondary.

The story is narrated by Ruth, though her family call her Ruthie. She tells the story of her family before getting to her own. Her grandfather moved from the Mid-West to Fingerbone, where the novel is set. (Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere It is a small town built on an old lake, but an old lake which, on occasion, resurfaces. The menace of both the lake and the surrounding mountains is present throughout the novel and both Ruth’s grandfather and mother will die in it. However, the menace is not like a horror novel, but far more muted, till it casually strikes. By the time he arrived in Fingerbone, her grandfather had a job on the railways which he kept till his death. He met and married Ruth’s grandmother, Sylvia, and built a house, sensibly, some way up a hill. He was killed when the train was derailed crossing a bridge and fell into the lake. Everyone on it drowned.

Sylvia is left with three teenage daughters, called Molly (who goes off to China to become a missionary), Helen, who will be the mother of Ruth, and her younger sister, Lucille, and Sylvie (she is called Sylvia on the first page but then becomes Sylvie for the rest of the book). All three girls leave home at the same time, Molly to go to China and Helen and Sylvie to get married. Sylvia does not recognise Helen’s marriage, till she has seen it herself and Helen and her husband come back for one day to get married. They then return to Seattle. Her husband later runs off with someone else and we never hear of him again. Helen later returns with Ruth and Lucille, leaves them on her mother’s doorstep and, using the car she has borrowed from a friend, drives over the cliff into the lake, killing herself. We do not learn why.

As Ruth tells us on the first page, the two girls are first brought up by their grandmother and, then, when she dies, the grandmother’s two sisters-in-law. The sisters-in-law are not happy being either mothers or living in Fingerbone. However, no-one seems to know where Sylvie is, till, out of the blue, she writes a letter to her mother, not knowing of her mother’s death. The two aunts contact her and invite her to come and look after her nieces, which she agrees to do. It seems that her husband is out of the picture and that she has no children of her own. Sylvie is, to a great extent, what makes this book. She is eccentric, though not wildly eccentric. (Clearly our aunt was not a stable person. At the time we did not put this thought into words. It existed between us as a sort of undifferentiated attentiveness to all the details of her appearance and behaviour). She sleeps with her shoes on, is happy to lie on the park bench in the middle of town and will only have dinner after dark. Initially the girls take this in their stride. Indeed, it is sometimes useful. Lucille, who, despite being the younger one, is the leader, while Ruth is generally docile, starts to misbehave. In particular, she wants to play truant, so Ruth goes along with her. While the school is (mildly) unhappy with this, Sylvie does not seem to be bothered, merely remarking that school is a good idea

The two sisters are particularly close, undoubtedly because of what they had gone through but also because, at least initially, they had not made friends in the town (nor, for that matter, had any other of their family members). They remain close, doing everything together. But then, it is Lucille, the younger one, who seems to grow up first. She is the one who develops physically faster than her older sister. She is also the one who starts making friends at school. She is also the one who is embarrassed by her aunt’s eccentric behaviour, which does not really bother Ruth. Ruth is a very solitary girl. She tells the story of meeting another solitary person at bus station, who latches onto her and comes up with a fantastical story about her family, a family which she clearly does not have. As she moves away from Lucille (or, rather, Lucille moves away from her), she becomes closer to Sylvie, who also seems to have no friends and is also solitary. But Sylvie’s behaviour becomes more erratic, attracting the attention of the benign sheriff.

This really is a superb book and fully deserves the reputation it has. Robinson tells a wonderful story of a family who are clearly eccentric – and, at times, beyond eccentric – yet are both convincing and realistic, without being psychotic or raving mad. Loneliness, instead of seeming the preserve of the disturbed, is seen as something that has its merits. Till Lucille, towards the end, seems to make friends, none of the main characters seems to have any friends but they do not seem bothered about it. Indeed, it is not an issue at all. Robinson’s use of nature is also superb. Yes, it is dangerous – there is a serious flood during the book and, of course, Ruth’s mother and grandfather both die in the lake – but while it is seen as potentially dangerous, it is not seen, as it can be in some novels, as being a separate character, with a mind of its own. It is there. It has an effect on human life. It will always be potentially dangerous but it can be, if careful, if not necessarily mastered at least managed. Finally, her theme is that we are all too often transients in life and in the places where we live and that many of us are trying, not always successfully, to overcome this transience and put down roots and avoid impermanence. Robinson brilliantly weaves these strands together to create one of the top US novels of the latter part of the last century.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux