My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.
These first sentences of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (aside from being some of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read) contain the whole plot of the story. From here, Robinson slowly unfolds the action and the characters – the lives of Ruth and Lucille as they are passed from caretaker to caretaker, all within the same house that their grandfather built in the town of Fingerbone.
Robinson has a distinct style and it’s in full effect here. The emphasis is on character development, description, natural setting, story unfurling over time. It doesn’t move quickly and there isn’t necessarily much plot. But the writing is beautiful and the reader is immersed in a world both familiar and strange.
We follow Ruth and Lucille through their childhood, to the moments where their lives dramatically diverge. This is a much darker tale than Gilead (read my review of the book here) – filled with ghosts, abandonment, death, and a bit of scandal. The sisters live in the shadow of a nearby lake – the final resting place of more than one family member. There is a continuing idea of visitors – ghostly and otherwise – gazing through windows. This is a story about outsiders. How one becomes an outsider, how one remains as such, and whether change is possible. Once you are outside, can you ever come in again?
As someone who greatly enjoys Robinson’s style, I liked this book a lot. I can imagine that some might find it frustrating and there certainly were sections I had to re-read in order to really visualize. It’s a slow and steady read, but if you take the time to move through it, it is well worthwhile.