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Susan in TX

I don't know if I can use the word "like" -- only because it struck me as so sad. That said, it did make me want to keep going and read Gilead. I liked her writing style and even in my late night reading couldn't miss the water themes and biblical allusions. Good selection. I'm looking forward to reading others' comments on this one.


unfortunately my copy has not arrived yet.[greece]blame the weather,christmastime and postoffice i will not read further critics,i will not spoil my anticipation.efi.

Susie Vereker

Yes, it was a moving book, subtle and sad. The author does well to explain the mindset of the child and the transient person, so we understand the latter rather than despise. The language is beautiful and I learned about a bleak, wintry part of the States, presumably near Canada. I thought I'd made some notes on the book when I originally read it but can't find them. Sorry not to write more deeply but have to dig out snow! Happy Christmas, Cornflower Book Group, and many thanks again to Karen.


I felt the book was poised for the most part over a conflict between two forces - the first that of housekeeping, with its intent on order, comfort, security and stability, the other that of water, as the element of loss, disorientation, and the powerful negative emotion that haunts states of apathy and mourning. Ruth, the narrator, is lost within this conflict and longing for rescue. Lucille makes a firm and furious choice for housekeeping. And Sylvie sidesteps the conflict by giving herself over to the watery state, hence her indifference to the flooded house and her fascination with the lake, and only too late does she realise that housekeeping is necessary.

I felt that the book was troubled by the burden of responsibility - there were no grown-ups in it, after the grandmother had died, only children, or attenuated children. There was no one to make sense of what had happened or to find a resolution to it. And so it seemed to me that the language of the story itself became the place where all responsibility was taken for making this story valuable or worth reading. The language embroidered every element that fell into its view, teased it and strained at it, searching for significance. But for me, all too often the language became opaque at the point where it tried to be most meaningful. I often found myself reading sentences two or three times, not because their beauty struck me, but because I couldn't quite figure out what they were saying. For instance:

'And any present moment was only thinking, and thoughts bear the same relation, in mass and weight, to the darkness they rise from, as reflections do to the water they ride upon, and in the same way they are arbitrary or merely given.'

The more I read this, the more I wondered what it was saying. It isn't true that thinking is purely arbitrary - some of it may be, but not all of it. In the end I felt that some parts of the narrative were style over substance, that they sounded provocative, but couldn't produce real insight. But it must be said that the lyric is probably my least favourite form of language. It is so in love with its own beauty that it can forget the matter of plausibility. By the end, I felt (and forgive me but the very fanciful nature of the book does sort of encourage it) I felt that language itself was holding Ruth and Sylvie apart from some sort of viable, grounded existence. That if they could only be free from its opaque meanderings, they would see themselves clearly and find resolution.

In the end, I felt that the story was rather like the (admittedly lovely) image that Ruth has of dredging the lake and bringing up everything lost in her net. It was a collection of flotsam and jetsam constructed out of unresolved grief, but for me it didn't quite cohere into a narrative that gave me anything to take away. I so wanted to love it! But it didn't quite work for me.

adele geras

I loved this book. I read it first when it came out and remember being struck then by the water imagery and the housekeeping themes....I'm afraid I haven't had time to revisit it for the group but I will. We have it on our shelves. I don't think it's as good as either Gilead or Home and Cornflower, I know you'll love these two novels. I do take Litlove's point about lyrical writing I mind it much more when it's not supremely well done! But both Gilead and Home are sparer and more sinewy and have more of a plot, though Robinson can not be called a plot-driven writer. She is one of the best novelists around at the moment, in my opinion and also an original. I can't think of many other writers who are doing similar things. A very good choice for the Group, Cornflower! Merry Christmas to all at Cornflower towers and in Cornflower comments.


And I feel I should reiterate - it is fundamentally a question of personal taste that motivates my own reaction. I know the lyric makes me come over all Anglo-Saxon! I hoped it wouldn't happen with this book, but I'm still glad I read it.

And I didn't say: Happy Christmas!


Although Housekeeping did not have much of a plot, it did make you want to keep on reading because of the language and the subtleness of the prose.I do know what you mean, litlove - some of the parts being syle over substance. What struck me most was the two girls being brought up the same and playing together gradually adopting two different lifestyles.As they were growing apart some of the descriptions of Lucille were just so sad . How she missed her mother!I felt that there was a bleakness about the whole book and with the weather we are having, it seemed quite apt!

Mr Cornflower

Definitely a distinctive 'voice' and as such an excellent choice. I do share Litlove's reservations about how sometimes the language muddies rather than clarifies the waters but on the whole I thought it was very well done.


I have read this book before and am half done on the reread. Have also read Gilead. Have enjoyed both of them but I had forgotten how much apathy was in the book.

Julie Fredericksen

Thank you litlove and Mr. Cornflower for your comments, because until I read them I was feeling quite the dunce. To quote litlove: "But for me, all too often the language became opaque at the point where it tried to be most meaningful. I often found myself reading sentences two or three times, not because their beauty struck me, but because I couldn't quite figure out what they were saying."

My sentiments exactly! I thought Robinson's sentences were often murky and unfathomable (to use a few water-themed words regarding a water-themed book).

However, when her sentences worked, they were truly - as so many commenters here put it - lyrical.

Being from North Dakota, I really appreciated this line: "Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere."

Susie Vereker, you said that you "learned about a bleak, wintry part of the States, presumably near Canada." That could have been ND, except for the mountains. None of those here! It wasn't Montana, because people in the book speak about going to Montana. I'm guessing the setting was Idaho.

Susan P.

I didn't read the book this time but have read it 3-4 times before. I am always moved by Sylvie's attempt to provide a home for Ruth and Lucille, while not understanding what housekeeping means as society defines it. Sylvie never abandons the girls, she may not be able to create a home as we define it, or understand the need to housekeep, but she stays on, which for a wandering soul is oddly impressive.

The Scottish director Bill Forsythe did a wonderful movie adaptation of the book.

Anji Brown

I am not sure that I liked this book. Yes, the language was beautiful and haunting but the story, was sad and bleak. I agree with Litlove. The imagery of the lake and the chilly atmosphere the language evoked stayed with me long after I had finished the book and yes, I am glad that I kept reading.


I loved this book - thanks for choosing it Cornflower. This group makes you relfect on what it is that makes a book enjoyable - it's clearly not the same for all.

Here I just felt connected to the characters and was hooked totally. It's just a personality thing this time - not related to the plot or writing style.

Barbara MacLeod

I really liked the book and thank you for this wonderful discovery! There is lots to look at; here is my take on it:

[1] It was nine tenths of the way through the book before the townspeople began to arrive. Thank goodness! ... because the book just did not ring true to me for the lack of folk from the outside impinging on their lives. I was born and raised in a town uncannily like Fingerbone, i.e. a similar small town on a railway line (which is why it got established in the first place) and on a lake... location: a couple of hundred miles north/north-west over the border in Canada: She was absolutely wonderful in her description of the mud at spring break-up, the house built in low-lying land etc. Given the period of the novel, this is a community, typical of many, where everyone had arrived from somewhere else, i.e. immigrant/settler communities. Certain things operated and one basic one was that people looked out for one another as a matter of survival. Small towns: you noticed things. Also this is a rural culture where, as you can see in any rural area, people look to others especially if distances are great. (Yes, people willingly cut themselves off, as did Slyvie, but what is it they say "No man is an island"?

[2] Yes, I had trouble orienting myself sometimes: who or where she was talking about.

[3] Images I liked: (a) "Time and air and sunlight bore wave and wave of shock, until all the shock was spent ... " (b) The dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water." Wonderful!

[4] Setting: she had this absolutely nailed. It could have been my mother or my grandmother out there hanging the washing, bringing the "casseroles or coffee cakes". Oh, the memories of just that... or children being brought into the house when some sort of crisis was going on!

[5] Card games: Very common and we played these a lot (not my thing but there you are!). I enjoyed recollecing "Fish" which she referred to as "Go Fish" and it took this book to discover that PINOCLE is how you spell the card game pronounce PEA-KNUCKLE!

[6] Theme of transients and transience: excellent one and sensitively handled. These communities, indeed the west of both USA and Canada had a lot of them and no more so than along railroad lines. Using female transients was clever, I thought. Given that this was very much a 'pioneering' culture, it was (is? in rural areas?) a male dominated culture (you also see this in Western Australia). In other words, it was hard for women. Lots of stories there to tell!

[7] I did not like the title. Even "Keeping House", I think, would have been better.

[8] Again, a particularly apt book for an all female book group!

adele geras

Thank you, Barbara, for the comment above. Brilliant and fascinating stuff. Added greatly to the enjoyment of the book in retrospect, if you see what I mean!

Dark Puss

Dear Barbara sadly my library reservation never turned up so I have not read this yet. I am greatly interested in your comment [8] as I don't think of books as sexed, could you elaborate a little?

Many thanks DP

Barbara MacLeod

Books are not sexed; it is the group doing the reading!

Dark Puss

Hello Barbara, yes I realized that! What I was interested in was your comment "a particularly apt book for an all female book group". Why not equally apt for an "all male" reading group?


Possibly the theme is sexed to some guys. My husband would not read it as it can be rather wordy and he likes as few words as possible and for the author to get to the point. He also likes action stories.

Barbara MacLeod

Ditto in my case as well.

I used to attend an all female bookgroup (before I moved house) and found that there were certain books that "worked", i.e. the group (and I do mean the whole group) liked books where lots of discussion could take place. A fair enough critieria. I am aware that other people read this blog and therefore simply am offering my thoughts on the matter. I have no experience of an all male reading group, nor, indeed, a mixed one either so cannot comment.

Rose Harding

I'm stuck in Stuttgart - visiting the Christmas Market here in Stuttgart and other markets in the surrounding area - (LHR closed) but hope to be back in the UK and reunited with my copy of Housekeeping very soon. I'd like to contribute a comment. I finished the book and enjoyed it. Will mail again soon when I get back to the UK and I do hope that that is in the next day or so!

Dark Puss

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my question. DP

Dark Puss

Jodi, thank you for taking the time to comment on my question. DP


The setting was Idaho. Page 165 in my book.

Dark Puss

Guess what? When I got home yesterday there had arrived a reservation postcard from my public library for this book stating that they would keep it for me until 19 December.

Thwarted again!

Dark Puss

To my amazement when I went to the library yesterday my copy was still awaiting me! I read it this afternoon thus it is still fresh in my mind, but the rapid pace of reading wil mean that some of the subtlety will have been lost upon me (of course that might well be true at whatever pace I read it).

The water fairly drips from every page of this novel, black, cold, frozen it permeates the main characters until they are soaked in it, steeped in it. Like other commentators I felt it dealt well with transience and isolation and the movement towards a desire for both of those even while more conventional people are pushing for inclusion and a rootedness. I had some sympathy with the way it ended for Ruth and Sylvie and they way in which they held out for the inevitable.

I liked it; it was well written, sparse, bleak and cold writing, clear like a frosty night. My final comment - I'm still not clear (see comments by Barbara MacLeod and Jodi) why this book might appeal more to women than me.


Glad you were able to get it in the end, and pleased to hear you enjoyed it, too.


I'm coming very late to this but wanted to add my thoughts. I am glad that I read it but, as many say of books, something that I would have chosen for myself. But, as soon as I started in, I was captivated by the descriptions of the setting.

Back in the 1970's, I made a trip by train to visit a boyfriend who was in the middle of a yearlong internship at a small town newspaper. I headed off at noon from Seattle and after 12 hours of stops at every small town in eastern Washington, the train arrived in Sandpoint, Idaho.

It was magical to come out of the mountains and then across the total blackness of Lake Pend Oreille before reaching the station. It was a charming town when I visited with both a great book store and a kitchen shop but I can easily see how isolated you could feel there in earlier times.


Better late than never, Blackbird - thankyou!
The setting is such an important part of the book, isn't it, and I think Marilynne Robinson really makes the most of it.

Dark Puss

You may have read in Saturday's Guardian that Jonathan Coe considers the film version of Housekeeping to be the most successful book-to-film adaption of all. The film version, made in 1987 by Bill Forsyth appears to be almost unknown and unobtainable. That's a real shame as I'd very much like to see it. Here is what the NYT thought of it upon release.


Thankyou, DP, I'd like to see it, too.

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