Last Saturday, due to an unexpected change in plans I took the opportunity to read “The Housekeepr and The Professor” in one sitting. To say that I loved the book doesn’t even come close to describing how much I enjoyed it. To be honest, I think the enjoyment came in part from abdicating all responsibility on Saturday and reading the book from cover to cover. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that and it felt great :-) It has to be said though, that most of the enjoyment came from the telling of such a beautiful, simple story in a way that resonated with me on so many levels.
At first glance, the story was one I was probably guaranteed to love as the Professor in question was a Maths professor who had a passion for numbers and the interconnections between them. As someone who has thought in numbers all my life it was comforting to read that others do that too, and that I’m not completely barmy!! I even learned some things about interconnections between numbers (such as: that perfect numbers are numbers for which the sum of their positive divisors (excluding the number itself) equals the number – 6, 28 and 496 are the first 3 perfect numbers). The interspersing of these facts throughout the story was certainly a factor in my enjoyment of the book.
In case I’ve turned you off the book with all this talk of Maths, this story is about so much more than the Maths. You can’t help but connect with the professor, who, as a result of a car accident, could remember everything before the accident but only had an 80 minute memory after the accident. For a number of years prior to her death, my grandmother suffered from a form of dementia, which meant that her long term memory was fine. but her short term memory deteriorated to a point where she couldn’t remember something that had happened 10 minutes before. We were lucky that she remembered all of us, so that gave her a sense of comfort as the deterioration continued. It was difficult to see her go through the various stages of her illness and the real fear that she felt as she lost her grasp on the present. Reading the story of the professor and his coping mechanisms brought back many memories. It also brought to mind some of the moments of light relief we had when she said things she really shouldn’t have. I must admit, we did wonder if she didn’t sometimes use the fact of the deterioration of her mind, to say things that she had been thinking all along!
For me, the real strength of the book came in the relationships between the main characters – the relationships between the housekeeper and the professor, the housekeeper and her son and the professor and her son. The tenderness and compassion shown by the housekeeper to the professor was beautiful to observe. On the part of the professor, you got the sense that despite the fact he could not remember her from one day to the next, there was a connection on some level. It was like he became the father she never knew. The relationship between the housekeeper and her son was such a strong one and yet you could feel some of the tensions that exist between a mother and her 10 year old son as he starts to get more independent. To be honest, I’m not sure how much of this is actually in the book, as the last few years in my house have been filled with these same tensions and maybe I just wanted to see them :-)
For me though, the standout relationship in the book was the one between the professor and Root (the nickname he used for the housekeeper’s son). The connection and loyalty felt by one towards the other really reminded me of the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. These relationships are so important to both young and old and Ogawa painted it perfectly. I was lucky enough to have great relationships with my grandparents and my children are also blessed to have great relationships with their grandparents. In truth, our move out of Dublin when my now 12 year old was almost 2 was in part down to our wish to nurture those relationships. It’s fascinating to watch the way in which your own parents interact with your children in a way they never did with you. This is probably due in no small part, to the fact that the responsibility of making the hard decisions is removed from the equation, so that leaves all sides free to enjoy the relationship. Root’s love of the eccentric old Maths professor really jumped off the page as did the love that the professor had for him.
For me the best books are the ones that leave you wondering in the end. I have read so many books which have kept me in their grip right to the end, but then, in a bid to tie up all loose ends, they completely ruin the integrity of the book. There were many relationships in the book that were hinted at but not elaborated on and in that I think Ogawa got it just right. She focussed on the main characters and let them tell their story. One of the joys of the book, that struck me after I had finished it, is that, even though I didn’t know the names of the characters, I almost felt like I was in the house with them as they went about their daily routines.
I’ll finish with a word of thanks to Catherine Cronin for her recommendation of this book.