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Housekeeping

January 21, 2010

Mariilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping has been praised by people a lot more intelligent and a lot more important to me. That’s why, since I read the book over a month ago, I haven’t been able to think of anything new to say. I loved the novel. It was one of the best books I read last year, but I don’t feel competent talking about it. Maybe after a couple years of grad school in American Literature I’ll feel better about my critical skills.

But I have had a couple years of grad school in film studies, and this novel felt very cinematic to me. Almost like a Terrence Malick film, in which everything washes over you as though in a dream. Characters and settings are all important and plot devices get lost in the wind. Nature takes over and moves people aside, drowning them under layers of lake water. Days of Heaven works with some of the same themes, the locusts playing the same role as the flood.

What I loved about this book was how much it wandered without being tangential. I don’t know how I got such a pleasant, sleepy feeling while I read when there is a lake full of waterlogged bodies and a caretaker that might leave at any moment. Robinson has a way with prose that seems very Southern and meandering, but by not placing the novel in the South (it takes place in Idaho) there is a sense of danger and immediacy.

What immediately jumped out at me – and seems to have jumped out at every other literature critic – is the strong, self-sufficient female characters that manage to form unconventional but somewhat satisfying bonds with each other. Taking tropes of classic American literature (“My name is Ruth” v. “Call me Ishmael”) and then reformatting them to fit feminine identity without making them “Female,” Robinson creates a novel that is as strong a myth as any in the Canon.

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