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Beautiful,
Insightful,
Pointless

15 reviews

The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel
by Yoko Ogawa

Published: 2009-02-03
Paperback : 192 pages
13 members reading this now
35 clubs reading this now
14 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 11 of 15 members

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem?ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is an astute young Housekeeper?with a ten-year-old son?who is hired to care for the Professor.
And every morning, as the Professor ...

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Introduction

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem?ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is an astute young Housekeeper?with a ten-year-old son?who is hired to care for the Professor.
And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor's mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities?like the Housekeeper's shoe size?and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.
Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless--too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers--but I don’t know how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond infinity. As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy evening in early April. My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the Professor's study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a
nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her
book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that
important?
2. Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term
memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job,
his friendships, how he takes care 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.
3. As Root and the Housekeeper grow and move forward in their lives, the Professor stays
in one place (in fact he is deteriorating, moving backwards). And yet, the bond among the
three of them grows strong. How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship
to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations
of our profoundest relationships?
4. The Professor tells the Housekeeper: “Math has proven the existence of God because it is
absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot
prove it.” Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory?
Love?
5. The Houskeeper’s father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the
Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where
all of the families are broken (including the Professor’s), what do you think Ogawa is
saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to
be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it’s made of?
6. Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship
with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and
the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending
ambiguity in that regard?
7. The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the
Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the
Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method
of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole
worldview?
8. Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different
ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.
9. How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the
Professor? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example,
consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or
perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways
are the cultures similar, different?
10. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in
the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters.
Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for
the characters?
11. Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the
book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic
possibility?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Reviews:

*A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection*

"Highly original. Infinitely charming. And ever so touching."--Paul Auster

"Gorgeous, cinematic . . . The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel . . . like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters. . . . This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami. The three lives connect like the vertices of a triangle."--Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"Deceptively elegant . . . This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters can lurk currents you don’t see until you are in them. Dive into Yoko Ogawa’s world . . . and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen."--Dennis Overbye, The New York Times Book Review

“Alive with mysteries both mathematical and personal, The Housekeeper and the Professor has the pared-down elegance of an equation.”--O, The Oprah Magazine

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Disappointed"by bmedvid (see profile) 10/24/17

Told from the housekeeper’s perspective, this novel starts with the introduction of a brilliant math professor to his new housekeeper. Due to an accident, the professor’s memories reset ... (read more)

 
by karl13 (see profile) 12/08/16

 
  "Understated and Brief - A Japanese novel"by vlj1120 (see profile) 01/10/14

This is a quiet book with an intimate story about the poetry of numbers and the beauty of personal connection. There's also quite a bit about Japanese culture, baseball, and memory loss.

 
  "Lovely novella about unique relationships & memory"by mystryrdr (see profile) 04/11/13

It's a short story but was really poignant & and interesting. Sort of like the movie, Memento, it makes you consider what life would be like if you had only memories of a decade or so earlier and then... (read more)

 
  "A lovely story"by AliceB (see profile) 08/17/11

An interesting tale from a house-maid's perspective.

 
  "Short book--Long discussion"by bookmoot (see profile) 06/16/11

Great conversation about the constancy of mathematics. Had a former math teacher there who gave more background on the some of the theories and mathematical principals discussed. Sweet tender story.... (read more)

 
  "the novel really had nothing to say"by mcrchick (see profile) 06/12/11

 
  "no point"by thebettertwin20 (see profile) 06/12/11

uneventful

 
  "A Sweet Story"by mabook (see profile) 03/15/11

This is one of the sweetest stories I've read in a long time. Don't be put off by the "math" in the story - you will love the Professor, his care and concern for the Housekeeper's 10 year old son, and... (read more)

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