Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980. Picador. ISBN 978-0-312-42409-1)

The sticker on the cover makes it plain: Someone decided that this was a book worthy of a community read. Why else would it have been selected bu the NEA as a “Big Read”? But here’s the thing: After reading Robinson’s slender and beautifully phrased novel, I can’t figure out why the NEA found it so compelling.

Oh, I’ll grant you that the author knows how to write complex, intricately woven prose. In many ways, my reaction to the style used to flesh out this sparsely themed novella-seeking-novel-status never changed from the first chapter to the last: “Oh, she’s written an extended prose poem. How lovely.” But as I kept at it, reading snippets of the novel before bed and in the bathroom and finally, as I unwound after a long day at Heikenpäivä in Hancock, MI where I was appearing as the featured author, the same puzzlement intruded upon my enjoyment of the book: “Where’s the story?”

Set in the mythical, lakeside, western town of Fingerbone, there’s a little Russell Banks, a bit of Anne Lamott, and a smidgen of James Burke to the style and tone of Robinson’s work here. The plot, if that’s what one can call the backbone of this lengthy short story, is that all of the adults in the lives of sisters Ruth and Lucille, have either died or left, rendering the children orphans to be ultimately cared for by a maternal aunt, Sylvie. Sylvie is eccentric and unusual and well, a very hands-off sort of gal, leading to lapses in nutrition and care and schooling and the like for the girls, culminating in the expected: The local sheriff steps in to inquire as to the girls’ welfare. Maybe I’m too linear of a reader and a writer to get it. Maybe I’m just a dunderhead who needs to expand his mental capacity and enjoy a book, not as story or storytelling, but for its bones, for its well-crafted wordsmithery.

Perhaps these things are true, that it is a deficiency of the reader and not the writer that left me puzzled and unsatisfied at the end of Housekeeping. I’m open to that possibility. But for me, while the words all seemed elegant and orderly and keen, the end result of my time spent in Fingerbone was disappointing. 2 and 1/2 stars out of five. Pen/Hemingway? Maybe I’m missing something …

Peace.

Mark

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