Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Publication Date: 2003 in Japan, 2009 in US


He is a brilliant math professor, with a peculiar problem — since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young housekeeper with a ten-year-old son who is hired to care for him. And between them a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms. Though the professor can hold new memories for only eighty minuets, his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past; and through him, the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the housekeeper and her son. The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family where one before did not exist.

Joshua's Take: 3.5/5☆

Why I picked up the book: because I had heard a lot about Ogawa's work and her Diving Pool collection of novella's sounded right up my alley, but since I couldn't find it, well, I picked up this book instead. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books, The Time Travellers Wife.

Okay, so The Housekeeper and the Professor is nothing like Audrey Niffenegger work, but while short, it's an incredible sum of its parts, a world where mathematical equations can express the very essence of the stars and the beauty of a falling cherry blossom. The title directly translates from Japanese as The Professor's Beloved Equation and Mrs. Ogawa's voice here is a breath of fresh air, a first person narrative surrounded by a wonderful cast of characters who are ingeniously never named (I leave it up to you to figure out what that means thematically), from the tragic Professor who only remembers things from before his car accident in 1975, who must awaken anew each day afraid, wondering where he is, to the Housekeeper, a young single mother with her own deep problems, who takes care of the Professor and forms an unlikely friendship that gives her both strength and courage, and of course the Housekeepers son Root, given his name by the professor since the top of his head looks like the square of a root sign, and his own felt inadequacies since he has to grow up rarely seeing his mother or feeling the warmth of a family. All three characters are given so much life in such a short amount of time, all given a reason for being through math, oh and baseball!! Just amazing.

Granted I was a bit turned off that Mrs. Ogawa used actual math problems in the books narrative to mirror whats going on internally within the characters rather than use math in an abstract sense. I've never liked math, much like the Housekeeper remarks when the Professor first gives her math lessons, but I have to admit as the story goes on, I became wholly invested, absorbed in the mathematical problems along with the characters. The author has created something truly amazing, she has created a world where math is the poetry, math is the allegory to the character narrative. As a reader, as I read along, figuring out the problems along with the Housekeeper and her son, I became more invested, cheering along with their triumphs and feeling dismayed with their setbacks. It's truly an amazing thing, an amazing world, Ogawa has created.

In 2006, this book was adapted in to a film with the Japanese translation, The Professor's Beloved Equation and directed by Takashi Koizumi who directed the beautiful 1999 film, After the Rain. I have not seen the adaption, and while I hear its a bit different I also hear it's quite good. As long as it stays close to the original source material I'm sure it's a deeply moving and profound watch, so I look forward to having the chance to see it soon.

The Professor and the Housekeeper is the kind of book that people read because they love books and publishers publish because they too love books. It turned out to be something different than what I was expecting, a fantastic look at what it means to be a family through friendship, and while I only read this book because Mrs. Ogawa's Diving Pool wasn't available, I'm glad I did because it opened up the work of Yoko Ogawa for me, moving and surprising me in many ways and I can not wait to read more from her.

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