Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

  • Title: The Housekeeper and the Professor
  • Author: Yoko Ogawa
  • Genre: literary fiction
  • Intended audience: adult
  • Format read: ebook
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Pub date: February 3, 2009
  • Trigger warnings: mentions of car crash, amnesia and memory loss
  • Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Math is one of the most misunderstood school subjects there is. As a math major, I have found that most people don’t like math or perceive themselves to be bad at math. I have also found that most people don’t understand what math actually is. Sure, math is addition and subtraction and the algebra you learned in middle school. But it is so much more than that. It’s the fact that all of those things are essential to our understanding of the world around us.

The titular professor in The Housekeeper and the Professor is a professor of number theory. Number theory is the class that, for me, solidified the fact that I wanted to be a math major. Numbers are a fundamental building block of our universe; and number theory is about discerning the fundamental truths about numbers. One of the things I loved about The Housekeeper and the Professor was the way it used numbers as a motif throughout the novel. For a math professor with an eighty minute memory, his only tangible connection to the world around him is numbers. Numbers are how he managed to find meaning in a world that only exists for eighty minutes, and it is how he makes connections with people he does not remember and will not remember. The housekeeper and the professor, and Ogawa by extension, treat mathematics and numbers with all of the beauty and reverence they deserve.

Within that reverence for numbers, The Housekeeper and the Professor also tackles the myth that only “math people” can do mathematics. Although the housekeeper and her son, Root, do not understand all of the professor’s work, they still engage in math problems of their own. The housekeeper stews over and solves different puzzles the professor gives her, like how to tell what the numbers between 1 and 10 sum to without adding them up by hand. She also constantly computes “how long can she run errands for?” and “how many years ago was this historical event? Was it before or after his accident?” in order to determine what the professor will and will not recall.

Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.

More than anything though, The Housekeeper and the Professor is about the deep and lasting impact that we as humans have on each others’ lives. Although he cannot remember them, the professor changes the lives of the housekeeper and Root profoundly. And although he does not know it, they change his life too. It’s a story about humanity, and about how although we may feel hopeless or lonely, even the tenuous connections we build with others can have a lasting impact on our lives.

This is not to say that I liked everything about the book. Like most literary fiction, the focus of the book is on the prose and on the characters with little detail given to plot. I think there was just enough plot in the second half of the book to keep a balance that prevented it from getting boring, but I could have used a touch more plot in the first half of the book. There were also a few sentences that stood out as a bit heavy-handed, but I will chalk that up to the translation.

It isn’t a book to read all in one sitting; it’s something to be digested slowly and thoughtfully. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone, if you are at all interested in literary fiction I definitely would. I also think if you are interested in literary fiction but new to the genre as a whole (as I would generally classify myself), The Housekeeper and the Professor is a good book to start out with.

When I stop to reflect on the book, what comes to mind is a quiet, optimistic look at humanity. It is human nature to forge connections with each other, even if superficially we are as different as a housekeeper and a professor. It’s a character study of the positive, if surprising, outcomes that can emerge when we forge bonds with each other.

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