Thursday, February 10, 2011


The Housekeeper and the Professor

This book came to me via Jen, or more specifically her bookclub. It's a smallish book, so when Jen finished it quickly, said it was good, and left it lying about...well, I had to read it. Right?
If you google this book a ton of reviews come up and a majority of them, to my surprise, use the exact same description - CHARMING. And, it's true. This book is a charming book.
Ogawa does a great job of blending a simple story, about a Japanese housekeeper forming a friendship with her employer the professor, with quirky facts about math. This book follows a well used story line, where you have two people who have trouble forming a relationship because of some strange reason/problem. In this case, the professor only has 80 minutes worth of short term memory and cannot remember anything past 1978. So, every morning when the housekeeper comes over it is like they are meeting for the very first time (hmm, 50 first dates anyone?).

What I found interesting right off the bat, and I don't know if this was Ogawa's intention, is that these two characters seemed to be both social outcasts in a way. From what little I know of Japanese culture outward appearance is very very very important. The housekeeper, whom had a baby when she was a teen and is now a single mother, and the Professor, who is covered in scraps of paper he attaches to his old suit to jog his memory, both seem to be on the outs with society's expectations.

After we get into the book a bit we find the professor is a genius in math. He can find the most fascinating facts about any number; shoe size, phone number, IQ? And, he has a way of explaining the most advanced math theories in simple language that we can all understand. This math obsession brings a lot to the book. First, it brings up some interesting/fun math facts. Two, it make this book more interesting than a story strictly about a relationship (blah). Three, it gives me something to think about outside of the book. I found myself thinking about this math genius and how it was so interesting that he could have all of this math knowledge stored up in his brain. I wondered how much time he has spent working with numbers? How ones brain could concentrate on something like that for so long? What makes a brain be able to do that? I found I was a bit jealous knowing I'd never be that knowledgeable about one subject. Then I thought about how sad it was that he was so obsessed with numbers. How he seemed to lack social skills, and any kind of life outside numbers. He had no other domestic skills, not even basic cooking or cleaning. His whole life was wrapped up in thinking about numbers. Even his small interest in baseball was only there because of all the stats and numbers. I thought the baseball story line just accentuated how much the professor was like a kid in many ways. It was almost like the housekeeper was taking care of two kids?

However, the way the professor worked with numbers made you just want to meet him. I just wanted to throw a random number at him and see what he could make with it. He was a lovable character who came across with a good heart. He seemed to make the most out of his life and rarely let his 80 minute memory get him down. The housekeeper seemed to be a good hearted character as well, with tireless energy making everyone else's life happy and clean.
There seemed to be no 'villain' in this book. I was half expecting a rival mathematician to show up one day and have an algebra dual just to add some action to this book. But, alas no evil math wizard showed up. We are just left with the stresses of everyday life to add climaxes to the story.

I'll gladly repeat what many others have said before me, this book is charming.


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