Quick review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Literature

 

An older woman sitting next to me on the train asked me what I thought of The Housekeeper and the Professor. “It’s not riveting,” I answered, “but it’s a quick read.” I liken the book to a piece of chewing gum: delicious and mouth watering at first, but soon the flavor is lost, compelling you to find a trash can in which to spit it out.

 

Maybe I am being too harsh. But where do writers get off providing the blurbs they do for these novels? Paul Auster, for one, is quoted on the cover of this book, saying the story is, “Highly original. Infinitely charming. And ever so touching.” Such lofty praise! I can’t imagine which blandishments he chooses to heap on great pieces like Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (highly original), Alice in Wonderland (infinitely charming), or The Little Prince (ever so touching). No. The Housekeeper is bubble gum.

What a shame, too, because the premise that got me to pick it up in the first place really is quite original: a brilliant mathematics professor who, after an accident in 1975, has only eighty minutes of memory (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes). Every morning his housekeeper must reintroduce herself to him, and he keeps little notes pinned to his suit to remind him of who she is, where his razor blades are kept, and so forth.

 

But if you are expecting something like Memento, or a moving look into the mind of one experiencing such unique mindfuck of a life (e.g., The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), you can forget it. We are never let into the professor’s head. The only glimpses of his mind we are shown are through a few math equations peppered through this slim novel. It’s as if Dava Sobel wrote The Housekeeper as a requirement for her literature class in college before moving on to her scientific-historic journalism.

 

I happened to check out a book club copy of this novel with eleven discussion questions at the end. For fun I had someone choose a number between 1 and 11. She chose 9. Here is the question:

 

How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the Professor? In what ways does it seem different from Western culture? For example, consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways are the cultures similar or different?

 

This random pick is apropos; I embarked on this reading project to avail myself of non-Western cultures. I wanted to learn how their authors wrote while at the same time gaining insights into their respective cultures. In this vein The Housekeeper even failed to provide any real insight into the Japanese culture for me. How does the Housekeeper’s early, unmarried pregnancy compare to how women handle the same thing here? Well, not being a woman I can’t exactly say, but I know plenty of women who got pregnant at an early age, unmarried, and they dealt with the situation without too many sneers from society. The same thing happens in The Housekeeper, so not so different at all.

 

And what about the food? A complete disappointment. Consider the birthday celebration of Root, the eleven year old boy:

 

I had made shrimp cocktail, roast beef and mashed potatoes, spinach and bacon salad, pea soup, and fruit punch—all Root’s favorites—and, for the Professor, no carrots. There were no special sauces or elaborate preparations, it was just simple food. But it did smell good.

 

What’s so Japanese about that? That’s sounds like a typical American meal to me.

 

Moreover, a large part of the “plot” revolves around baseball—while it’s crazy popular Japan it is a quintessential American game and pastime. While Yoko Ogawa places this novel in Japan it might as well have taken place in Ohio.

 

This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.

 

Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol

 

 

Yoko Ogawa, Japan, Quick Review