four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Yoko Ogawa
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0

A-The Housekeeper and the ProfessorYoko Ogawa is a prize-winning, critically acclaimed author of over 20 works of fiction and nonfiction in her native Japan, though only a handful of her books have been translated into English. The Housekeeper and the Professor sold more than 2.5 million copies on the island nation and was recently made into a movie.

The Story: Living quietly in a decrepit cottage in his sister-in-law’s backyard, a former mathematics professor solves old mathematical proofs and rattles off baseball statistics from 1975, the year a car accident robbed him of his ability to form new memories. He cannot retain any new, post-1975 memories for longer than 80 minutes. When a new housekeeper is hired to care for him, she must reintroduce herself every morning and endure the same barrage of questions day after day—one of the many aggravations that led nine housekeepers before her to quit in frustration. But she is determined to keep this job, and soon a friendship starts to form between her, her 10-year-old son, and her affable, if exasperating, charge.
Picador. 192 pages. $14. ISBN: 0312427808

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"This sweetly melancholy novel adheres to the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in what is off-center, imperfect. … The Housekeeper and the Professor is a wisp of a book, but an affecting one." Amanda Heller

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel (a tribute to Stephen Snyder’s smooth translation); like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters. … This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami." Susan Salter Reynolds

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Ogawa’s plot twists, her narrative pacing, her use of numbers to give meaning and mystery to life are as elegant in their way as the math principles the professor cites. … Ogawa’s short novel is itself an equation concerning the intricate and intimate way we connect with others—and the lace of memory they sometimes leave us." Anthony Bukoski

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. … Dive into Yoko Ogawa’s world … and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen." Dennis Overbye

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Housekeeper and the Professor is strangely charming, flecked with enough wit and mystery to keep us engaged throughout. … Yes, there are formulas throughout these pages, strings of numbers—real and imaginary—and explanations of primes and logarithms, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Euler’s formula, but no matter how much you hated math in high school, you can’t help but be seduced by the housekeeper’s enthusiasm for what she discovers." Ron Charles

Columbus Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ogawa’s prose is restrained, but she makes it clear how vital the delicate connection is among all three characters. With [its] simple plot and limited scope, [this] novel reveal[s] the strong emotions within what seem to be even the most insubstantial human bonds." Margaret Quamme

Critical Summary

The success of Ogawa’s "deceptively elegant novel" (New York Times Book Review) was a surprise, considering its lack of action, romance, melodrama, and even character names (none of which are ever mentioned). However, there is enough suspense and sly humor to keep readers enchanted by this slow-paced, delicate novel—even for those with bad memories of high school math class. Ogawa makes a crucial choice not to minimize the impact of the professor’s brain injuries; she portrays his limitations and daily difficulties realistically, but also with warmth and affection. Critics praised Stephen Snyder’s seamless translation and compared Ogawa’s graceful prose to that of Japanese writers Kenzabur? ?e and Haruki Murakami. This touching story of a devoted friendship may captivate Western readers as well.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a
nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her
book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that
important?

2. Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term
memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job,
his friendships, how he takes care of himself)? Discuss some of the creative ways in
which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to
his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.

3. As Root and the Housekeeper grow and move forward in their lives, the Professor stays
in one place (in fact he is deteriorating, moving backwards). And yet, the bond among the
three of them grows strong. How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship
to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations
of our profoundest relationships?

4. The Professor tells the Housekeeper: “Math has proven the existence of God because it is
absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot
prove it.” Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory?
Love?

5. The Houskeeper’s father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the
Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where
all of the families are broken (including the Professor’s), what do you think Ogawa is
saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to
be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it’s made of?

6. Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship
with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and
the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending
ambiguity in that regard?

7. The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the
Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the
Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method
of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole
worldview?

8. Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different
ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.

9. How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the
Professor
? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example,
consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or
perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways
are the cultures similar, different?

10. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in
the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters.
Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for
the characters?

11. Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the
book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic
possibility?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.