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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Housekeeper and the Professor

On Kathy's recommendation, I just read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. This slim (under 200 pages), moving novel can be read in just a sitting or two, but the story will stay with you for days after that.

The story is deceptively simple with a compelling twist. First of all I should state that no one has a name in this book, which leads to so many questions without even mentioning the plot. So our three main characters are "the housekeeper" (who is also the narrator and from whose point of view we get the entire story), "the professor," and the housekeeper's 10 year-old son, who the professor nicknames "Root."

The housekeeper is assigned by the agency she works for to take care of the a former mathematics professor's home and make his meals. She is the 9th housekeeper assigned to the professor. This is because the professor has a brain injury. He can remember everything that happened before his accident (1970s), but since, his memory is on a 80 minute loop. That's right, his memory only lasts 80 minutes. Intriguing, huh?

The ensuing story is about her time working for the Professor and the bond they form. It is about her son's relationship with her and the Professor. It is about the loss of a genius; we still see sparks of the old Professor as he works on complicated math problems. And finally, it is a story about living, no matter the obstacles; about living a life with meaning even if you cannot remember what happened 81 minutes ago.

Appeal: There is math in this book, but it is just enough to catch our interest. If you think the book looks like a good match for your tastes but you do not like math, don't be scared off. The math is presented in an accessible and interesting way. Trust me, I don't like math myself and I enjoyed this book.

This novel obviously has a speculative element that is key to the story. You need to buy the whole memory lasting 80 minutes thing to like the book. This adds a touch of fantasy to what is otherwise a very "real" story. The memory issue is well explained early on though, and it is consistently applied throughout.

When you are reading it, The Housekeeper and the Professor seems leisurely paced, but it is so engrossing and original (and short) that I literally gulped it down.

At its heart, Ogawa's novel is a domestic story about every day things. It is also about the universal topics of friendship, love, and admiration.

But most of all, you have to like characters over plot to enjoy The Housekeeper and the Professor. It is the interaction between the three main characters and how they handle the Professor's illness that makes the book. Ultimately it is both heart-wrenching and touching, both surprising and reassuring.

Thinking about how your life changes when your memory (or the memory of one in your midst) only lasts 80 minutes is a huge appeal here. You will not stop thinking about what it would feel like to live that way.

Readalikes: One reviewer said that this novel with its larger message and nameless characters felt a lot like Aesop's Fables.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is similar to the works of other Japanese writers. If you liked this novel, try Haruki Murakami or Kobo Abe.

I also found this novel to be very similar to Japanese American author Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine about the Japanese-American internment camps. Both are short, but leave you thinking. Both are very domestically focused but look at a much larger and thought provoking picture.

Richard Powers' award winning, The Echo Maker also looks at a man unhinged by a mental defect caused by an accident. However, here we get the perspective of the person living with the brain injury.

The Housekeeper and the Professor also reminded me of the work of Jose Saramago. Try Blindness where everyone has gone blind, save for one "survivor."

For Nonfiction options, people may be interested in books about popular Japanese literature (Ogawa has won many awards in Japan), failed memory, and, of course, mathematics.

Look for more on The Housekeeper and the Professor in the next few months as my book group will be reading and discussing it soon.

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