Friday, March 11, 2011

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson (Audio)





I'd frequently heard about Marilynne Robinson, the celebrated American novelist. She looks pretty good on paper. "Housekeeping" was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer. "Gilead", her second book, did win the Pulitzer in 2005, and "Home" received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. While some bloggers have sung her praises, though, I also heard some fightin' words like "could not finish" and "like watching paint dry". Frankly, it scared me a little. I am a self-proclaimed Pulitzer Idiot, after all. But when Tatjana Soli mentioned "Housekeeping" as one of her favorite reads, Books Babes and Bordeaux signed up to give it a try for our February meeting.

Synopsis: Young Ruth narrates the story of her and her sister's life in Fingerbone, Idaho, after being abandoned there by their mother. Raised for a time by their grandmother, then for a short time by their child-adverse great-aunts, then by their dreamy, transient Aunt Sylvie, the girls have never known stability. The girls have never had a male presence in their lives, never been made to attend school, never been required to keep their hair combed or their clothes tidy.

At the heart of Fingerbone lies the railroad bridge, from which their grandfather plunged to his death long ago. It is this railroad that also offers the prospect of transience, and perhaps a symbol of a way out. The theme of housekeeping also recurs throughout the story, not only the dusting and sweeping kind, but of spiritual housekeeping within one's family to keep it whole. In the case of Ruth and her sister, there is very little of either.

My thoughts: I think after reading this book, it has been officially determined that I need to stay away from prize-winners. I've read my share, and have very little luck with them. What is wrong with me? Am I not smart enough? People! Time magazine listed this book to be one of the 100 best English language novels between the years of 1923 and 2005! Yet all I wanted to do is stab myself in the eye with a sharp stick. If I hadn't been listening to an audio, which is akin to force-feeding, I would not have finished it.

Why you ask? The story is very subtle, with very little action within the plot. There is a flood, a fire, staying out all night on the lake and such, but everything happens very passively, as if being observed by an uninterested bystander. I'm not an adrenaline junkie, mind you. I can appreciate gentleness, but this particular brand of prose left me feeling dead.

I found the characters themselves to be two-dimensional. We were given little history of the players, and almost no emotion was expressed...no one cried, screamed or laughed. I was slightly annoyed with Sylvie, who came across as flighty, irresponsible and unprepared to care for children. Would it have been better for the girls to be cared for by a foster family, or was it healthier to stay with blood kin?

Robinson would occasionally wander off the path and deliver little mini-sermons on certain topics. I couldn't name one, as I didn't really understand what they were about. She also often used big fancy-sounding words that I didn't know, and that felt pretentious.

As I read through my words, they sound harsh and very unprofessional. It is just my expression of frustration that I was unable to "get" something so decorated and considered such a classic. What did I miss?

Thoughts from the members of Books, Babes and Bordeaux: Out of the nine or ten of us gathered to discuss this book, only two of us actually finished it. For the most part, the group looked at me with blank stares, asking me for my synopsis, analysis, insight, anything...and I did my best but you see what my opinion was. One member, who ALMOST finished it, said she didn't hate the book, and actually could relate some of the dysfunctional characters to people in her family. There was a kitchen full of gaping mouths when I announced that this book was an award finalist, and we sought to understand the appeal. Unanimously, we declared this read a hearty thumbs down.

Then we spent the rest of the meeting talking about popular music, pets, the disconnect between today's youth and "us", and we drank wine. And summoned hope for next month, when we discuss "The Weird Sisters".


A word about the audio production: Our narrator was Becket Royce, a new voice for me. This is definitely one book that could have used a lively personality at the microphone, but we didn't get it with Royce. Her voice was pleasant enough but had the effect of putting me to sleep.


2 out of 5 stars

21 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

Don't stay away from prize winners - just stay away from prize winners which have no plot! I hated this book too, but I assure you that many prize winners are wonderful. Don't forget that Gone with the Wind and Middlesex won the Pulitzer too :-)

Jenny said...

I totally hear you about some of those prize winners! I get discouraged sometimes when I don't "get" them. I'm reading one now that has received lots of acclaim and the author is on the top 20 under 40 list... it's not bad but it's definitely not my favorite either.

At least you can rest assured that your next meeting will be for a great book that hopefully everyone will love!!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I totally hated Gilead. In fact, I end up hating most Pulitzer winners. I think it's a political prize....

Darlene said...

I normally stay away from prize winners. I do have one of her books on my shelf somewhere but have never been in any hurry to read it.

Zibilee said...

Glad to see your review. I struggled so much with this book, and as I mentioned before, it made me feel claustrophobic because of the writing style. I also mentioned before that Sylvie had no business raising those girls. Did she even love them, or was it all about not breaking up the family? A hard read for me to like for sure, and you are totally right about everything seeming so flat and the characters seeming so one dimensional. Great review on this one. You honesty is awesome!

ds said...

I LOVED this book when I read it ages ago--fell into her prose style (and the young narrator's voice) as easily as the grandfather fell off the bridge.
(I was okay with, but didn't feel the same way about Gilead; have not read the last one.)

Perhaps it is a different experience on the page; perhaps they chose the wrong narrator (your judgment is always spot-on). Was it an abridgement?
Every book is not for everybody. But I'm sorry you didn't care for this one. Truly.

Avid Reader said...

"Yet all I wanted to do is stab myself in the eye with a sharp stick."

Bahahha, I've had the exact same reaction to many prize winners. Sometimes I think the only requirement for those books is that they much be boring and filled with unlikeable characters. There are some wonderful books that have won prizes (like farmlanebooks mentioned, Middlesex), but there are a lot of crap ones too.

Julie P. said...

I think I have that problem with award books too.

Elisabeth said...

Award books in general seem to be the most disappointing. I really did not like Gilead, I rarely really don't like a book, so I will steer clear of anything by this "award" winning author. Her style is just not for me.

Wallace said...

Well, now you have me curious! Is that weird (to be more curious now than before)? I want to see what it's like for myself. I have Gilead (because I, too, was hearing so much about Robinson lately). I don't think I've actually read a Pulitzer, but the Booker's are usually really strange (I honestly think they almost make sure they are really strange to give them the award in the first place).

Catherine Ensley said...

I read the book after it first came out and had the same reaction as you. Why? Why is this such an extraordinary piece of art? I still don't get it.

Jenners said...

Well Middlesex was a prizewinner and that was good. I think they give awards to books they don't understand or like either just to make the rest of us feel bad.

Beth F said...

LOL -- I often wonder how some books get prizes. Let the Great World Spin was one -- factual errors all over the place and so I could get past the first 4 stories. Ugh. Who gives prizes to sloppy writing and editing? But I digress. I haven't read any of her books.

Grace. said...

So much about reading books is not about the book, but about us and our tolerances and preferances, not to mention what's going on in our lives at the moment. I read "Gilead" while recovering from heart surgery. It's gentle, forgiving meditations on spirituality was just what I needed. Then I moved on (or back) to "Housekeeping." I recognized the writing as quite wonderful but for a book with amazing and provocative plot elements, it just never grabbed hold of me the way "Gilead" did--maybe it was me, maybe it was the deliberate flatness of the writing (which I took to be a stylistic choice--so many dramatic things happened to these girls that they thought that was how life was, and so never really experienced any of it as "drama.")

heidenkind said...

This is why I usually avoid award-winning books.

JoAnn said...

I read this with my book club years ago and just loved the writing. I know there wasn't much plot so, maybe you should avoid that type of book and not prize-winners in general...

Lenore said...

I loved this one! Sorry you didn't :(

Amy said...

I have seen this book on several best book lists but most of the actual reviews I have read have been mixed and the people I know who've read Housekeeping feel as you do! I have this book and will read it, or attempt it some day but my expectations aren't very high.

Incidentally, Marilynne Robinson was on the Jon Stewart show last year for a non-fiction book she wrote about scienceand religion. She was very nice but also quiet and kind of...shy, maybe? Jon Stewart was good but the interview was definitely awkward and weird. I'm not sure Jon read the book either!

Thanks for your review, Sandy. I really liked it!

Gavin said...

I loved this when I read it years ago. There are scenes from it that are still stuck in my head. I should give it another read and see if I have a similar reaction:)

The Bumbles said...

Now now - don't start lumping all award winners under the same umbrella. They can't all be incredible. They can't all suck. It's no different than the Oscars really. They only get the award because the people voting thought it was great. Sometimes you'll agree with them and other times you won't. Good for you in being honest about your opinions in either case. That's most important to me.

Kathleen said...

Yikes, you have my curiosity going on this one. I wonder if I will like it or not. I'm afraid it sounds like I might not. We usually agree on books so this will be an interesting test...