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Monday, January 3, 2011

The Housekeeper and the Professor: a book review

Mathematics, baseball, friendship....three uncommon denominators which come together to make the beautiful story of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. This book was sent to me by Maggie of Stepping Out with Red Shoes On  in exchange for a book that I sent to her during my big book giveaway.

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)

28 comments:

Molly said...

I absolutely loved this book and would like to re-read it again soon. Very nice review :)

The Bumbles said...

Another blogger and I decided to read this together on Goodreads about a year ago. We had great fun answering the discussion questions in the back of the book and both shared a love of the characters in this story. I HATE math - it has always been so scary and painful for me. I know that had I had the Professor for a teacher, I would have fallen in love with the numerical world. This was a truly lovely story. Plus, it had baseball ;0)

Kathryn said...

Sold! Now I'm going to look for it for my Kindle...
Kathryn : )

ds said...

Brava, Susan!! This is a great review. To Kill a Mockingbird is, in my opinion, a wonderful standard to hold. Carry on! (And yes, I would love to read this book...someday)

Susan said...

Hi Molly! This book has lain on my dresser for several months. I would pick it up and put it back down for some reason. When I did finally read that first page, I didn't put it back down again until I finished it, except to get coffee. This one I will read again and again, and recommend it to all my friends until they are badgered into reading it. They won't regret it. It has become one of my top five favorite books. I can't wait to read more of this author.

Ruth said...

What a great review of a great-sounding book!

It's funny how book titles indicate nothing of what a book is about. This is not at all where I thought that title would go . . .

Susan said...

Molly B, this is one of those books that I never wanted to end. I loved its gentleness and subtle twists so much. I have a math phobia, too, but the Professor almost made me fall in love with it. For the author to make it sound so romantic and intriguing, she must have a true love of it herself.

And you can't go wrong when there's baseball! :)

Susan said...

Kathryn, you will love it! And it's a quick read, although I would have been very happy if it had gone on forever. I love it so much.

Susan said...

Thank you, dear ds! I seriously quake in my boots knowing that a wonderful book reviewer such as you is reading my paltry words. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you will take a few hours to read this book. It deserves your attention. Too bad you didn't know about it last year for the Japanese challenge! :)

Susan said...

Thank you, dear Ruthie! I know! That's one of the reasons it lay on my desk for so long before I picked it up. Even though the note Maggie included gave it a good recommendation, I just couldn't get much interest in the title. Boy, was I wrong!

There is also a movie of it with a much more unlikely-sounding title of "The Professor and His Equation", and of course, it has subtitles, but I'm going to watch it anyway. Too bad Ang Lee didn't make it. That would have been something.

Oliag said...

...and I had just made a commitment to myself to read only all the books I have stacked up here in several scattered TBR piles! This sounds like something I would love and I have never heard of this author...will be talking to my librarian daughter soon:)

Sandy Nawrot said...

I think our hearts need stories like this, just to keep us believing in humanity, and not getting depressed from the other stuff floating around. Excellent job on the review!

Barb said...

Well, Susan, you've sold me - I'm going to look it up on my Kindle. I see we both like to read, too. The premise for this story is intriguing...

Char said...

it sounds like a beautiful read

Susan said...

Oliag, I hate to be the one who leads you astray, but this is a wonderful book and a very quick read. You won't regret it.

Susan said...

Thank you, Sandy. You know me, I don't do book reviews unless I really, really, really love it. I wish I had read it in 2010, because it would definitely be Number One on my favorites list.

Susan said...

Barb, I know you will love it. It just touched my heart so strongly. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

Susan said...

Char, it is the perfect little book.

Dutchbaby said...

This was one of the two books I downloaded on the Kindle app on my iPhone when we went to Africa. I loved every word of this book and was distraught that it went by so quickly - did I bring enough reading material?

Your synopsis of this book is fantastic; I gave it five stars too. I think you will like The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. It has the same serene, careful pacing and tells a beautiful story. It's another five-star book I took on a trip. I savored every word trying to make the book last longer, but it was finished long before I was ready for it to end.

Susan said...

Dutchbaby, I felt exactly the same...I never wanted it to end! If I didn't have such a huge pile of TBR books, I would have immediately started over. I don't think I could ever tire of reading it.

I have read Tsukiyama's Women of the Silk and loved it as well. I'll look for the one you recommended, as well as Ogawa's other book The Diving Pool. I think I could easily read nothing but Japanese authors from now on.

Kathleen said...

I can't possibly ignore a book that you have given 5 stars too. I'm very excited to add it to my list.

Susan said...

Yay, Kathleen! I know you will enjoy it! Thanks for visiting.

steviewren said...

Wow! Five out of five with Mockingbird as the standard! It sounds like a must read to me.

Funny, someone else mentioned this one to me earlier this week. Looks like I need to make a trip to the bookstore.

I'm currently finishing up Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks. I've got the new book by Lincoln and Childs and Bill Bryson's newest one on my nightstand. I also picked up a new to me one by Lee Smith. I've got a lot of reading to do!

Tina said...

Sounds like a good read! I've been shopping around for another good book!
I've really enjoyed reading your blog. I can't wait to see what you write next!
You have a new follower!

Susan said...

Stevie, I think you will love it. The ones you're reading sound very interesting, too. I love Bill Bryson. I have stacks and stacks of books I need to read this winter. I need to stay off the computer if I ever want to accomplish that!

Susan said...

Hi Tina!

Thank you for visiting and for your kind comments! You should definitely read this heartwarming book...great for a winter's day!

stacybuckeye said...

I loved this one too! It was one of my favorites in 2009. Thanks for letting me relive it by reading your thoughts on it. It is a beautiful story.

Susan said...

Stacy, I think every book lover had read it but me! I'm so glad it was given to me...I might never have found it on my own.