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Thoughts on “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa

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)

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (cover)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.

My Thoughts:

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.

Your Turn!

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?

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  • http://www.thebooknerdclub.blogspot.com mummazappa

    Recently I’ve read Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, I had no idea how many species of eucalyptus there are! I also found it quite interesting the way they are woven into that book – not something I would ever want to learn about otherwise :-) Thanks for your review of this, it seems to me it might be a kind of ‘remains of the day’ read, a lovely one. I’ve seen it around and wasn’t really sure if I should read it or not. I think I will now.

    • Erin

      Huh, that sounds fascinating. I know next to nothing about eucalyptus, so I could probably learn a lot. If The Housekeeper and the Professor sounds like Remains of the Day to you, I’m extra excited, because I have the second one on my shelf!

  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    I absolutely adored this book last year. It was one of my very favorites of 2009.

    • Erin

      I really liked it the first time around, but I think I may have enjoyed it more on rereading it. I wish Ogawa’s Hotel Iris were similar, but from what I’ve heard and read, it seems quite different.

  • http://www.linussblanket.com Nicole

    This hardly sounds ordinary. I just finished Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld and I was really taken with how the state of Kentucky was so present in the book and the character’s lives. It’s hit or miss whether I remember where a book is set because in most cases it doesn’t matter that much. Here it mattered a lot and it was good to find out some of the richness of the history in a state I barely ever thinking about beyond maybe, bourbon.

    • Erin

      I guess by ordinary I meant more that the characters don’t do anything remarkable. No adventures, no traveling, no huge life events that occur during the novel; just cooking, talking, doing homework, and the like. I probably should have clarified, because you’re right–without explanation, the story doesn’t sound ordinary at all!

      I plan to read Stranger Here Below and am extra interested now. I like when places are so important to a novel. I also grew up in Ohio, right across the river from Kentucky, though I don’t know much about Kentucky’s history either! We used to joke that you could smell the bourbon wafting across the border from our southern neighbor :-)

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    I’ve learned a bit about the alcohol industry recently by accident, both historically and nowadays.

    I’m not keen on maths either, though I would like to be better at it, and this book sounds like it might help achieve that. I know how a book can make subjects interesting and yet I’m having a hard time understanding it with maths. I’ll have to have a look for it.

    • Erin

      Oh, interesting! I’ve heard of a few historical fiction novels dealing with the alcohol industry, but I’ve not read any thus far.

      I kind of wish the Professor had a companion volume to The Housekeeper and the Professor in which he taught all the basic principles of math! The book is too short to contain too many math discussions, but the ones that are there are lovely and easy to follow.

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  • http://www.readinasinglesitting.com Stephanie

    Wonderful review. This sounds like a book I’d love–I adore the quiet, simple Japanese style of writing.

    One of the best books I’ve read this year was Madmen Dream of Turning Machines, which is a fictionalised account of the lives of mathematicians Turing and Godel. Simply stunning. I also read a great one about early onset Alzheimer’s by Stefan Merril Block.

    • http://www.readinasinglesitting.com Stephanie

      Oops, Turing machines, not Turning machines.

    • Erin

      Oh, then this definitely is a book you’ll enjoy! And, it’s short and light enough to be read in a single sitting…perfect!

      Madmen Dream of Turing Machines sounds fascinating! I love fictionalized biographies. Onto the list it goes :-)

  • http://www.thingsmeanalot.com/ Nymeth

    This sounds like a beautiful book. I love gentle novels, so that word alone was likely to have sold me.

    • Erin

      Definitely beautiful, definitely gentle. A breath of fresh air in its simplicity. If you do get to read it, I hope you enjoy the experience!

  • http://www.bostonbibliophile.com Marie

    Sounds beautiful! Yours is not the only very positive review I’ve seen of it and I think I need to find it. I like the idea of cozying up with a book like this!

    • Erin

      It’s definitely a book worth devoting an afternoon to! I’d not seen mention of it before I read it the first time, but since then I’ve seen several well-deserved positive reviews.

  • http://www.booklineandsinker.com nat @book, line, and sinker

    sounds like a serene read, though i must confess that math generally gives me hives. there’s something about letters defecting from literature to the math sector that unnerves me! :)

    as for authors weaving two topics, i’d say that bill bryson is a master at this. reading his ‘a walk in the woods’ was part humor memoir and part ecology and history lesson. most of his books are subtly peppered with educational information.

    • Erin

      I bet the math in The Housekeeper and the Professor won’t give you any hive trouble. I made it through unscathed, and I am with you on the whole letters defecting bit!

      My husband is a huge Bill Bryson fan, and though I’ve only read a couple of his, we have just about all of them. He really is a master of blending subjects. Great pick!

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    I’m not a math fan, but I loved this book, too. That surprised me, because I was expecting a book that revolved around math to be cold.

    Mary Roach is a master at incorporating (heck, basing entire books on) bizarre topics, such as dead bodies, into her books.

    • Erin

      Yes! But it was far from cold, surprisingly. It seems lots of math non-fans ended up liking this book.

      I’m so looking forward to reading my first Mary Roach book!

  • http://reviews.rebeccareid.com Rebecca Reid

    I really enjoyed this book. I get to reread it for next month’s book club, and I’m really looking forward to that. I too loved how it incorporated mathematics. I don’t like math — never have — but it helped me appreciate it.

    • Erin

      It’s funny how many people have responded by saying they don’t like math, but they liked (or think they’d like) this book! I think you’re exactly right–the novel does help you appreciate math, even if it’s not your subject of choice. Enjoy your reread!

  • http://lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I was always a little intimidated by this book but you make me feel silly for feeling that way. Maybe it was the idea of math, which has always been a problem for me.

    • Erin

      Don’t be intimidated! It’s really a lovely book. The housekeeper takes on all the responsibility for not understanding math, so the reader never has to feel left behind. The math is woven so beautifully into the story that it’s not a problem at all.