Marilynne Robinson has my heart

When did I stop thinking about all aspects of my life as undeserved gifts? That’s the question I’ve had to ask myself this week. Prompted by a wonderful book which I’m sure will prompt the longest post around the end of the summer when I finish it because I’ve been reading it slow on purpose. The fact that I have time to read and time to write is unbelievable. I’m trying not to fritter this time away. I’ve also had time to make some coasters with coffee beans, to finish knitting a scarf, and to bake bread & brownies. I’ve had time to consider reading and writing fiction a “productive” use of my days – to really focus on what it might take to do this consistently – to maybe gain some momentum to carry me through the days when I’m full-time-student and part-time-worker. Can I carve out the time and space and give up my procrastinating, micro and macro?

The book I’ve finished most recently is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. She is one of my favorite authors, and I feel I can actually say that because I’ve read a few of her books, and for the most part I haven’t read enough, and I usually feel like a huge fraud when people ask who my favorite authors are and I’m like…(idk I’ve had syllabi my whole life and seemingly only time to read what other people told me to read for the last 7 years)?

Anyway, Housekeeping was Robinson’s first novel and so quietly spectacular. It’s like prose-poetry narrative. The descriptive details focus on the feelings rather than the physical elements – I didn’t know that one of the characters was a redhead until halfway through, but who cares? I don’t want to tell you why it’s called Housekeeping because I really enjoy sussing out the reasons for titles of things and want you to enjoy it too.

I think it’s worth talking about all the new words I learned while reading this book (sort of an embarrassing amount…including words that I thought I knew but didn’t really know even though I’ve read them and used context to get around that ignorance in the past):

  • insouciant – a relaxed and calm state; not worrying about anything
  • prescience – the ability to know what will or might happen in the future (so, not pre-science?)
  • moil – to make wet or dirty (in this context)
  • quotidian – ordinary or very common; done each day
  • tumulus – an artificial hillock or mound (as over a grave)
  • invidious – unpleasant and likely to cause bad feelings in other people
  • exculpatory – to exculpate (to prove that someone is not guilty of doing wrong)
  • parturition – the action or process of giving birth to offspring (as opposed to?)
  • nimbus – a circle of light
  • fatuous – foolish or stupid (I was close on this one…)
  • carapace – a hard shell on the back of some animals
  • miscible – capable of being mixed (without separation) (just say mixable?)
  • incipient – beginning to develop or exist (so…nothing like insipid)
  • noisome – very unpleasant or disgusting
  • parsimonious – very unwilling to spend money (unrelated to persimmons)


Definition creds: Mirriam-Webster. Yes, I did pass the SAT and ACT and my English BA. Sad, no?

The book is about two sisters growing up with their mother then grandmother then great-aunts then one aunt, the dysfunction of their upbringing and the sadness of being in a family. It’s all women, which didn’t strike me until right now. Husbands and fathers are dead or abandoned, and the children were all girls. The plot isn’t really the point. So if you’re looking for tons of action, I’d maybe not go with this one. But if you’re looking to read a moving composition of words, this is that. I find myself sitting in a feeling similar to the post-Tinkers almost-sadness. I found myself more invested in Housekeeping, advocating more for the characters and affected by the force of the writing.

So much of the plot movement happens in the first third of the book…and the writing builds in potency toward the end, to the point where I had to put it down with about 25 pages left because it felt like I had been eating something savory for so long that I was too full and needed to let my stomach rest before eating again. Or…it’s more like when something has so much flavor that while you’re chewing it you start drooling too much – dried tart cherries are like this for me. When some feeling begins to get overwhelming and you have to stop because experiencing it all at once would be too much.

My connection to the story firmed up when I read, “’I suppose I don’t know what I think.’ This confession embarrassed me. It was a source of both comfort and terror to me then that I often seemed invisible – incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. But my allusion to this feeling of ghostliness sounded peculiar, and sweat started all over my body, convicting me on the spot of gross corporeality.” (105-106)

“It was difficult work, but I have often noticed that it is almost intolerable to be looked at, to be watched, when one is idle. When one is idle and alone, the embarrassments of loneliness are almost endlessly compounded.” (158)
(This is what I imagine it feels like to some people to beg.)

“I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected – an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind.” (166)

That’s a lot of quoting, and there was so much more I wanted to repeat here, but that would have been a lot. Those are some of the moments that punched me in the gut and made me sigh out of truth. I couldn’t have described the feelings as well, but that’s part of what I love about reading. Ugh. And hate.


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