Book Club Reflection: The Housekeeper and the Professor

10 Jun

I have to apologize for the huge delay in posting this. There has been so much I wanted to write about that this post got delayed longer than it should have. My apologies to those in my book club who were waiting for this summary. I’ll try to be better about it going forward.

I wrote my book review of The Housekeeper and the Professor about two weeks ago and I’ll reiterate here that I thought it was charming and sweet. It was a good book to read between books and the ladies of my group agreed that it was like a breath of fresh air. While this will be a shorter book club reflection, I feel that’s appropriate with the shorter length book.

One thing that was brought up that had never crossed my mind was a relationship between the Professor and his sister-in-law. I’d never put together that there was anything between them but the other members were able to point out a few hints that were dropped alluding to a relationship (she was in the car with him when the crash happened, the dedication on his award-winning proof). We suspect that the sister-in-law acted the way she did toward the Housekeeper because she was jealous of any relationship the two of them might have. The sister-in-law must have cared for the Professor on the weekends and still had some feelings toward him and we think she didn’t like to see him interact with another woman. She still wanted to preserve the memory she had of being with her lover in her youth and didn’t want to be his full-time housekeeper to keep this appearance up. We felt she walked a delicate line of taking care of him herself and keeping him at arm’s length.

Another thing that made us wonder was the financial situation that the sister-in-law and Professor had worked out. It seemed she was protective of his financial state, but she had the money. He never cashed the checks from his math prizes and didn’t seem to worry about the at all. Was she protecting his money? Or was he really a burden to her financially? We couldn’t really decide on an answer to this one.

A question that shocked me was if we thought the Housekeeper and the Professor had a romantic relationship. Most of us assumed it was chaste, but the sister-in-law seemed very jealous of the night the Housekeeper spent at his home. Perhaps the sister-in-law suspected it of being romantic, but we shared none of these suspicions. We gathered from her background that she’d never had a strong male figure in her life and even though she was older, he was still a father figure to her; someone she respected and cared for. The background of Root’s father and the Housekeeper’s mother led us to believe that not many people had been kind to her before and she was grateful that the Professor treated her with kindness.

By the end, the sister-in-law seemed to understand that their relationship was nothing more than friendly as she was much nicer to the Housekeeper when the Professor had to be moved into a home.

The Professor’s relationship with Root was really interesting to many of us. He had a great impact on Root who had never had a father figure before. We suspect Root would never have been a math teacher without the Professor’s influence and guidance. We debated why the Professor was so nice to Root. I suspected that he’d had a child or love-child (maybe with his sister-in-law) who he always wanted to care for but never could. Root acted as a surrogate he could care for instead. The rest of my group disagreed and thought Root reminded the Professor of himself in  his youth.

The questions in the back of the book were really good at making us think. The second question reads, “Imagine you are a writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character- for example, his job, his friendships, how he takes c are of himself? Discuss some of the creative ways in which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.” We thought she’s found very practical ways to deal with the Professor’s disability. The sadness he felt every morning was heart wrenching, but we wondered if he remembered it 81 minutes later. Did he have small travesties every day? it seemed that his memory was not completely impaired because he seemed to develop emotional memory of the Housekeeper and Root. The parts of our brains that remember facts and feelings are different so this is a likely scenario. Overall, I loved how she was able to take what should have been a very static character due to his illness and turn him into a much my dynamic character by revealing things about him more slowly and changing his circumstances but not his personality. It was very well crafted.

One of the elements of the story we had to talk about was the math. Was it too much? Some found it tedious and overwhelming but I loved it. None of us are really ‘math people’ but we were still able to understand what happened, which I think is a testament to Ogawa’s writing and ability to explain. The one complaint was from our vision-impaired members who said the math was very difficult to understand on the audiobook. I can see that being really challenging because a lot of the math explanations were understandable because of how the problems looked; either stacked or spaced out in patterns. That would be a lot more challenging with no visual.

We liked that math became important to the Housekeeper. She’d never really thought of herself as a smart woman, but she was able to solve problems by herself and the Professor was proud of her when she did. Sh doesn’t want to re-live what happened to her mother and we think she felt that being able to problem solve was something her mother wouldn’t have been able to do. By using a character with no math background, the book invited the reader to learn math while reading. I think that’s a really great concept.

We all felt that the style of the book was very different from what we’re used to reading. We didn’t know if it was a Japanese style of writing or a result of the subject. The book felt quiet, slow, and gentle. This could have been due to mathematics and the way the Housekeeper treated the Professor, or the writer’s style; none of us are familiar with her other work. I would add honest to a list of adjectives to describe the book because nothing felt like a device to connect the plot or say something.

We felt that the story was so well written it could take place anywhere at any time. It didn’t have to be Japan in 1993; it could have been Mexico in 1856. We felt the message was all about living in the moment.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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