The Housekeeper + The Professor

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.


10 responses to “The Housekeeper + The Professor

  1. What a beautiful, personal review of a beautiful book, Pam. This is one of my favourite books and it gives me such pleasure to see others find joy in it as well! Of course it’s a book about mathematics and love but as you say, it’s about so much more than that. I’ll add this to my collection of special reviews of the book 🙂 Looking forward to trading future books & recommendations with you!

    • Catherine, thanks to you it has now become one of my favourite books too. I’m also looking forward to future recommendations but I have to say this will be hard to top!

  2. Have to get this book now Pam. Great blog. Have come across the perfect numbers before… Love number….makes me even more interested on getting the book now.

    • Thanks Mary Clare,
      It’s a great book which seems so inconsequential and yet has so much to say. I didn’t even begin to touch on what we as educators could learn from the book – might even be the subject of another post 🙂

  3. I love it, Pam! Many echoes here of my own experience of reading this timeless and delicate web of love and logic. My Grandmother, too, had dementia and this book brought back memories of how her present and presence used to get garbled. Sometimes, she seemed to be back in her childhood days, sometimes her youth, sometimes her middle years. It was like time had collapsed in her mind.

    It was distressing for her, and for us, but humour and love always won out in the end. I remember soon after we got married, she came to visit along with my parents and siblings. We had drinks and I can still see her eyeing up a beer bottle on the table and then leaning in to whisper to me: “they do a great trade here, don’t they?”.

    I also loved the way the housekeeper became engaged with the maths. As her connection with the professor grew and as her relationship with her son deepened and changed, she too was changing, growing. She was starting to see new possibilities for her life – and for the numbers.

    OK, I’m going to have to root it out (pun intended) and read it again. Thank you for the prompt!

    • Mary, I had to smile when I read the quote from your grandmother – I could just imagine my granny saying something like it 🙂 When she was in the grip of the dementia her favourite line was “Without us, there’d be no one here”. This was used no matter where we were whether at home or out!
      I love your observation about the engagement of the housekeeper with the maths – I had intended to write this post as an educator as the book has given me plenty to think about in that capacity but the post became something else once I started! I’ve just started reading the book again, as I loved the approach of learning by discovery, and would like to see what more I can take from a second reading.

  4. Reading your post reminds me of the book–calls back ways I was feeling as I read. I love when you write: “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.” I am reminded of how important it is to recognize that the text that gets made is based every bit as much on the reader as it is on the writer. We co-compose the text as we read it.

    I too loved the professor when he was with Root. I wondered about the idea of embodying vs. cognitively knowing. Regardless of malady–the Professor seems to feel Root, just as he recognizes on some base level, the Housekeeper.

    It’s such a simple story and at the same time–that simpleness gives way to deeply complex characters. Pamela, thanks so much for this post. It brings the story back to me in ways that make me want to reread it:)

    • Mary Ann, thanks you for the kind words. It is amazing how certain books touch us depending on where we are in our own lives at the time that we read them.
      Like you, I loved the simplicity of the story and juxtaposed with that, the complexity of the characters. I’ve just started to reread the book – I’m looking forward to what new insights I’ll get on this pass through 🙂

  5. Pam, downloaded the book on Kindle at the weekend. OMG I just so loved it, I couldn’t leave it down! Simple yet profound. Your blog was terrific, thank you for leading me to reading it. I know I will re- read it again and again and I can’t say that of many books.

    • So glad you enjoyed the book Mary Clare,
      Like yourself I don’t often re-read a book over and over but I am in the middle of reading this one again and I’m enjoying it every bit as much the second time around.

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