I first read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa a few years ago. I picked it up again because my book group selected it for their November read.
About the Book:
“We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.” (p. 1)
So begins The Housekeeper and the Professor. The Professor, a brilliant mathematician, has a short-term memory that only lasts 80 minutes, the result of a car accident many years ago. The Housekeeper is our narrator and the tenth in a long line of housekeepers brought in by the Professor’s sister-in-law to care for him. At the Professor’s insistence, the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son, “Root,” spends his evenings at the Professor’s small cottage while his mother cooks and cleans.
Each day, the Housekeeper introduces herself to the Professor, who has forgotten her overnight. And every afternoon, when Root comes over after school, the Professor meets him as if for the first time. Though one cannot remember the other two from day to day, a lovely friendship begins to bloom between the three nameless characters. The Housekeeper and her son learn to accommodate for the Professor’s abbreviated memory. At the same time, the Professor leans heavily on the one thing his mind remembers with perfect clarity: mathematics. In ordinary moments throughout the day, he draws connections between seemingly unrelated numbers and reveals to the Housekeeper–and the reader–the unexpected beauty hidden in math.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a gentle, cozy novel. No character is named, and the bulk of the story includes only three: the Housekeeper, the Professor, and “Root.” Most of the novel takes place in the Professor’s tiny cottage, which he rarely leaves. The result is a simple story, the sort you can read in a day while curled up in a sunny window with a cup of tea. Yet it is also deep, exploring memory and friendship and family.
I would never have believed that mathematics could be so seamlessly woven into fiction that I hardly questioned its presence there. The Professor, a great mathematician and a gifted teacher, imparts facts about prime numbers and esoteric formulas to the Housekeeper, Root, and even the reader in such a natural and enthusiastic way that it’s easy to see the beauty of what has always been, for me, a difficult and uninteresting subject. As the Professor instructs and the Housekeeper absorbs, math becomes lovely, even poetic. Here, the Housekeeper has just learned about amicable numbers and twin primes:
“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.” (p. 63)
I loved the intimacy of the nontraditional family formed by the Housekeeper, the Professor, and Root. I loved that it did not have to turn sexual for the two adults to find comfort in the connection they shared. Though he does not remember them from day to day, the Professor becomes like a father to Root and a friend and teacher to the Housekeeper. Even as the Housekeeper and Root shelter and care for the Professor, the Professor teaches them about numbers and friendship. The storyline is rather ordinary, but the characters who live it make it beautiful.
Have you ever read a novel that incorporates an unexpected topic, like the way The Housekeeper and the Professor incorporates mathematics? Did it work for you?