From page one, I was captivated by this seemingly simple, but very complex story. The Housekeeper is a young single mother who never knew her own father (there are no names used in this book, save the nickname given to her son). Her son's father has never accepted responsibility for him. She works for a housekeeping agency, and is the ninth housekeeper who has been assigned to clean and cook for a semi-disabled former mathematics professor. She is given strict orders by the man's sister-in-law, in whose guest house he lives, to never bother her by coming to the door of the main house. She is to do her work and collect her paycheck and not get involved. However, there is one small catch; the Professor, because of a head injury he sustained in a car wreck in 1975, cannot retain any recent memory longer than 80 minutes. He keeps notes pinned to his suit jacket to remind himself of things. One such note that he affixes to the jacket after meeting the Housekeeper reads "This is the new housekeeper" and alongside he draws a rough sketch of her. Another reads "My memory lasts only eighty minutes." Even he has to be reminded of this fact.
Every day is the same. She comes in at 11:00 to cook his lunch, and she has to reintroduce herself each and every time, and again after every eighty minutes, if she has been out of his sight. He stays in his study, solving extreme math problems for a professional magazine, for which he has won many cash prizes and that don't matter to him. She cleans his house and prepares his evening meal and his breakfast for the next morning and leaves for home by 7:00 to be with her ten-year-old son. The professor finds significance in every number. At their first meeting, he asks the Housekeeper what size shoe she wears. When she tells him twenty-four centimeters, he tells her that it is a "sturdy number", the factorial of four. He goes on to ask her telephone number, he replies that it is the total number of primes between one and one hundred million. A mathematical genius.
When the Professor finds out by accident that the Housekeeper has a son, he becomes distressed that the boy arrives home from school to an empty apartment and has to be alone until she gets home at 8:00. He insists that she have him come to the house after that. Thus begins a sweet and tender relationship between the mother, the old man, and the boy, who he gives the name of Root, "because the square root is a generous sign, it gives shelter to all the numbers."
Root absolutely loves, and lives for, baseball. The Professor happens to love baseball also, but from the perspective of mathematical equations. In fact, he has never even seen a game. His favorite baseball player is Yutaka Enatsu, who played for the Hanshin Tigers when the Professor's memory stopped in 1975. Root persuades the Professor to have the ancient radio in the house repaired so they can listen to the games in the evenings; but to win this great prize, the Professor assigns Root a complex math problem to solve. Root is able, with his mother's help, to come up with the solution, and the radio is fixed.
Root is very protective of the Professor's memory. Every time they listen to a game, the Professor asks if Enatsu will be pitching. The first time this happens, Root tells him the truth. The Professor is so distressed that Root vows never to let it happen again. He concocts elaborate schemes to keep the Professor from finding out that Enatsu no longer pitches for the Tigers; and, in fact, has retired.
I don't want to reveal too much of the story, but there is a real baseball game, an injury, an illness, a separation, and a reunion. Along the way there are discoveries to make, math to learn, and a sweet surprise that brought me to tears, not the only time I found myself in tears throughout this lovely story. I was never more regretful about not learning higher math when I was in school. But, in a way, the Professor became my teacher, too.
"He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world."
Ogawa, Yoko. The Housekeeper and the Professor; translated by Stephen Snyder; copyright, 2003. Picador, New York. 180 pages.
5 out of 5 stars (and I don't assign this lightly, with To Kill a Mockingbird being my standard)