Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

It is no secret that math has never been "my thing." My children regularly struggle through their math homework without asking me for help. They make disparaging comments about my lack of mathematical ability. What I don't think they understand is that for a very long time, I did quite well in math (geometry beat the confidence right out of me but that's a story for another time). It wasn't so much that I didn't "get" it, I just didn't love it. Numbers have always been quite far down on my list of enjoyable things to ponder. And yet this slight novel about a former math professor who, after suffering a traumatic brain injury, can only hold things in his memory for 80 minutes and the unschooled housekeeper who assumes the care of the man and the cleaning of his small cottage is incredibly fascinating both on the human (character) level and in terms of the math concepts the professor explains to the housekeeper and her small son.

The professor is a mathematical genius and a gifted teacher who lives alone in a small cottage on the grounds of his sister-in-law's house. After a car accident in 1975, he has been unable to retain anything in his memory for more than eighty minutes. The suits he wears flutter with pinned notes reminding him of important things in his life. The most important note, which he wakes to every morning, is that his memory only lasts eighty minutes. Many housekeepers have come and gone in his life until the unnamed housekeeper of the title. She must reintroduce herself to the professor every morning offering him numerical tidbits from her life (her birthdate, her phone number, etc.) to help ground him in the immutable, eternal solidity of numbers even while everything else in his life seems new and confusing on a daily basis.

As the housekeeper settles into her own routine, she introduces her ten year old son, nicknamed Root by the professor because of his head's resemblence to the square root sign, into the small cottage. Root's presence pleases and energizes the professor, who takes to teaching both the housekeeper and Root about the beauty he sees in numbers. He explains prime numbers, amicable numbers, and difficult equations. His explanations are elegant and interesting and strike a cord with the housekeeper, who pushes further on her own. The three of them listen to baseball games, the game a statistician's dream. The housekeeper, the professor, and Root form friendships based on mutual interests and genuine caring despite the professor's inability to remember the other two from day to day.

The story itself is quiet, gentle, and lovely. The writing is carefully meticulous and yet elegant in the way that a complicated mathematical proof would be distilled to its simplest rendering. The theme of time and the fleetingness of memory contrast nicely with the eternal strength of numbers and friendship. There are no pyrotechnics here, just the simple beauty of a well-written, enchanting story. Like the concept the professor explains to the housekeper one day, this novel is easily summed up as amicable.


  1. Loved this book! Very literary.

    Here's a book giveaway of a new techno-thriller - Delusion

  2. I too rocked at math until... Calculus. Now I have trouble with even simple multiplication without a calculator, which I blame on my Cal professor.

  3. Loved this one as well....I'm another blogger with math anxiety.

  4. I have never really cared for math although I did well in most of my math classes except for geometry! But I understand the beautiful simplicity and straightforwardness of sums and mathematical theorems. Still, I much prefer literature and english. This book sounds like a melding of the two in some ways. I like to read gentle, beautifully written stories occasionally. They're a nice contrast to many of the chaotic, complex dramas and character-laden, twisted plot books I seem to read often.

    Thank you for a wonderful review of this book. It has such a pretty cover, too.
    ~ Amy

  5. I've been wanting to read this book ever since the cover caught my eye in a bookstore just after it was released. I just got it for Christmas and am very much looking forward to reading it. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  6. I have very similar attitudes about math. I also loved the quiet power of this book.

  7. I want to read this one, but Hotel Iris actually appeals to me more. I hope to make time to finally read this author this year!

  8. I bought this (and Hotel Iris) for the TBR a few weeks ago- looking forward to reading it.


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