This was last month’s book-club pick , and it has taken me weeks to decide how I feel about it. Actually, I knew how I felt right away but discounted it because it doesn’t seem to match the tide of accolades the book has received. But I just didn’t enjoy it.
It seems to have nearly everything I like about books—marvelous language, flowing imagery, interesting out-of-step characters and unique setting. But, for me, it doesn’t hold together as a novel. In some cases, while the description of the land and their living is so detailed, other major tent-pole markers go missing. For example, the grandfather worked on the trains, and died in a derailment when the train went into the water, as described in the first chapter. I didn’t realize till much later that the derailment was in the very town he lived in, which changed the weight of the water imagery for me. It still doesn’t make sense why I should have assumed that: (1) there are many waterways in America that trains run by, the chance it would be the home-water are slim, and (2) if they were that close to the station, the train would be slowing down, not barreling across a bridge.
Also, I had only the vaguest sense of time – they’re wearing jeans, and they jump trains, so sometime between 1930 and now. There doesn’t seem to be a social worker when the girls drop out of school, so sometime before 1980. Does it matter? It did to me. I actually went to Wikipedia later to discover that I was supposed to know that a novel one character was reading was published in 1954, so I would then know roughly when this story takes place.
And this narrator, who dropped out of school and doesn’t show evidence of mighty reading or checking a dictionary when she does, drops words like immiscible, fenestration, lucifactions, calyx, spillet, and parturition into her story. Hearing those words in her voice was jarring for me. Part of the story is about the reader’s discovering how Ruth’s interpretations of events (“finding” the rowboat, what flooding meant for the house’s foundation) doesn’t match our interpretation (stealing the rowboat, the foundation is unsafe). That her narration uses these words makes it also untrue, as if some smart person were trying to pass herself off as this dreamy, drifty woman. These sort of words are all through the book, and each time I passed each one and wrote them on the inside back cover to look up (me, with the master’s degree in English), my faith in the narrator weakened. By the end, I thought she was a big pretender and I’m not sure what she says happened in the end really happened.
I was also put off by the “promises” the story starts with that it doesn’t keep. For example, at the start of the story there is deep detail about the narrator’s grandfather, then his grandmother and all her daughters. They are so lovingly detailed I expected we would hear more about them, but we don’t—or not all of them. One became a missionary and disappears out of the story (not even a note, that I remember). I read this over a weekend, and remember waiting to hear something later about this missionary-daughter, who was so important she got a description at the start, but never did. Why is this daughter even in the story? To paraphrase Checkov on playwriting: Don’t have a gun on the wall in Act 1 if you’re not going to fire it in Act 2.
The one that led me to close the book for the night, though, comes later:
But we went there, leaving the house at dawn, joined at the road by a fat old bitch with a naked black belly and circles of white around her eyes. She was called Crip, because as a puppy she had favored one leg, and now that she was an elderly dog she favored three. She tottered after us briskly, a companionable gleam in her better eye. I describe her at such length because a mile or so from town she disappeared into the woods as if following a scent and never appeared again.
(HOUSEKEEPING, Picador 1980, p. 111)
Argh! I just spent time picturing this dog, making her history, guessing what part she would play in the story, and she’s not in the story ever again. This is the sound of a book hitting the wall.
This is why Crip is in the story:
She was a dog of no special consequence, and she passed from the world unlamented. Yet something of the somberness with which Lucille and I remembered this outing had to do with our last glimpse of her fat haunches and her palsied, upright tail as she clambered up the rocks and into the dusty dark of the woods.
Again, beautiful, beautiful writing. And again, unbelievable. I’m more inclined to think that the experience of being caught outside overnight with no shelter and trapped by dark dreams would be a better explanation for the “somberness.” If it wasn’t for book club, I would not have read on; I’m glad I did. But I’m not running out to pick up another of these books.
One of the many things that worked for me was the consistent imagery of water as dangerous, deadly, dark, mysterious. I know that is true—every time I step into Lake Michigan I think of all the dead mariners somewhere below—but I quickly shake off that image with my preferred view that water is life-giving, healthy, and good, and dive in. The cumulative images and descriptions in the text did a great job of persuading me to the other point of view, to a better balance.
I also liked being reminded that a person outside looking through a window at a cozy family inside is not always envious, not always wanting the same thing or anything like it.
Also, there are so many great lines: “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the worlds true workings.” (p. 116) “They were both long and narrow women like me, and nerves like theirs walk my legs and gesture my hands.” (p. 131) “It is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing.” (p. 159)