Book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor

My son (known around here as Pumpkin) went to the local bookstore and told them, my mom’s birthday is coming up, she likes to read, do you have any suggestions? Rather enterprising, don’t you think?

Apparently they showed him 3 books and he picked this one. He said he thought I’d like it because it had a part about math.

It seems that even my son knows that I am a nerd!

I love books. I love to read. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have books in my life. Reading a really good book is something that makes me happy. Part of my own personal Happiness Project is to spend more time reading.

(After I’ve read a book, I feel like I have relationship with it. I become attached. I know I need to give away some of my books, as the sheer number I own is overwhelming, but that’s a post for another day :-).)

In the meantime, let me tell you about this book: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.

The Professor has a unique problem. He is unable to make new memories. His memory stops in 1975. As a result of a car accident, he can recall the distant past but his recent memory lasts only 80 minutes. He is a brilliant mathematician, but each day he has to re-learn what he learned the day before. Although it sounds sad, I did not find it depressing. In a way it’s a love story, though not in the traditional sense, about the meaning of family and living in the moment.

The story is told from the perspective of a young, insightful and compassionate housekeeper. Assigned by her housekeeping agency to work for the Professor, she has no idea what to expect. She has a 10-year-old son nicknamed “Root” by the Professor, because his head is flat like the mathematical sign for a square root.

Imagine what it would be like, to wake each morning with no memories of what happened the day before. No memory of how old you are, why your tooth hurts, or what your housekeeper looks like. Or that you even have a housekeeper. If you read a book and then put it down for more than 80 minutes, you may as well have never read it at all.

I loved the math in the book (Pumpkin was right about that!), but the details of the math are not important. What’s amazing is how the author so beautifully explains the Professor’s excitement for numbers and their relationships (equations, in mathematical parlance). The Professor seems to have infinite (another mathematical word) patience to explain and re-explain these concepts to the Housekeeper and Root. Of course, he doesn’t know that it has taken them several weeks to learn one concept, since he can’t remember the previous conversations. He encourages them to make guesses and to use their intuition, to feel the numbers. His enthusiasm is contagious, even through the page. Is the author discussing the relationships between numbers, or between people? I would say both.

Consider the Professor’s memory problems. Can you learn to love someone who doesn’t remember you? The Professor doesn’t know the first thing about the Housekeeper; they have to be reintroduced each day. And, since he’s obsessed with numbers, each day he asks the same questions about her phone number (which equals the number of prime numbers between 1 and one hundred million) and her shoe size (which turns out to be the factorial of 4).

There’s another angle as well. Can the Professor grow to love the Housekeeper and Root, even though he doesn’t remember them? They arrive each day, talk to him as though they know him, and treat him lovingly. But he doesn’t know them. How does he feel about them, meeting them as though for the first time each day?

As with all good books, these questions are not answered by the author. We each have to decide for ourselves what we believe about the nature of love.

The book has no major plot twists. At no time do you say to yourself whoa, that was a surprise! It wasn’t the kind of book that you just have to keep reading because you want to know what happens next. And yet, I didn’t want to put it down. The writing flows so smoothly, like a gentle stream that keeps you moving along pleasantly without any serious rapids to navigate.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a study in what it means to live in the present, and what constitutes a family. Ogawa’s prose is beautifully simple. You just might learn a little something about mathematics. And your view of prime numbers will never be the same.

This post is linked to What’s on your nightstand?

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6 Responses to Book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

  1. Tiger says:

    There’s actually a real life example of someone with this memory disorder. See #1 on this list:

    http://www.oddee.com/item_97142.aspx

    Amazing.

    • Hm…. that’s interesting. I hadn’t heard of her. Have you seen the movie referenced in that article?

      I thought the character was based on Patient HM, the well-known amnesiac who was widely studied.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_(patient)

      HM’s memory was very short, around 30 seconds I think. From what I remember (I studied this a long time ago) he was able to learn new skills, but couldn’t remember that he had learned them. He would express surprise that the task was easier than he expected, because he didn’t know he had done it every day for the last 6 months.

      So sad. HM died at the age of 82, after living that way for about 50 years.

  2. What a unique book! And how great that your son used the bookseller’s expertise in selecting one for you. Sounds like they both did well.

  3. I love when my kids pick out books for me. They are my favorites to read – even when they are flops. I am adding this book to me to read list. I am pretty excited about it actually.

    • It was a surprisingly good book, and somewhat unusual. I wonder if there’s something about Japanese culture that is more accepting of this type of story, which is more about the characters than about the action. I read that they made a movie adaptation of it, which I can’t even imagine. It’s in Japanese though!
      I hope you enjoy the book.

  4. I’m pretty impressed with your son, here, yes! =D

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