The Housekeeper and the Professor

by Yoko Ogawa

Published 2003 180 pages

This feels very much like an Ishiguro book. First-person narrative from the perspective of a person in a subservient position? Check. The character in authority with some sort of fatal weakness? Check. A bittersweet loss in the ending chapters? Check.

Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor is about a housekeeper hired to look after an aging professor incapable of remembering more than 80 minutes at a time after a car crash sustained when he was younger. Most of the book is preoccupied with the professor's relationship with the housekeeper's young son (nicknamed Root) and the ways that the housekeeper and her son help the professor find happiness in the waning years of his life. It's a little bit over-sentimental, if you ask me, in the way that a lot of modern Japanese media can be a little bit over-sentimental, like the film Departures or, to a lesser extent, a lot of the stuff that Koreeda's made.

I think part of my complaint here is that the sentimentality doesn't feel earned. Maybe that's stingy of me. I think that the housekeeper is purposely left as a bit of a blank slate; but her latent talent with math doesn't get the attention it deserves. She doesn't get much of an arc. Her son, Root, gets a bit more development, character-wise: he matures in decisiveness and responsibility, and his relationship with the professor grows organically over the course of the story; though at times he can be a bit of a stereotypical "old soul".

But maybe that's asking a bit too much. It's a sweet little story that you could get through in a day, and sometimes that's all you need.

Stray observations

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