I wonder if I would have regarded Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family more highly had I not been reading it concurrently with Housekeeping. After listening to a few chapters of Clegg’s book on audio, I’d read a bit of Housekeeping and think, “This is how you write about loss and faith and memory.” In retrospect, this seems an unfair comparison. I mean, they’re both debut novels, both critically acclaimed, but I just love Robinson’s book so much and her approach to loss and abandonment resonates so well for me that I fear Clegg’s book didn’t have a chance when I read them side-by-side.
My favorite thing about Housekeeping is my favorite thing about all of Robinson’s novels: she writes like I wish I wrote.“Sylvie stood up and stretched, and nodded at the sun, which was a small, white, wintery sun and stood askant the zenith although it was surely noon.” (p. 152) I luxuriated in those words and in the same moment imagined the mundane way in which I would have described the position of the sun in the sky, and I felt something like despair. “…stood askant the zenith…” I felt reading that like I do when I look at a waterfall or the inside of a tulip or a sleeping child: a near-pain at such exquisite beauty.
And see, even there I wanted to describe how I felt, and I wrote it too over the top. “Exquisite beauty” is not remotely as significant and meaningful as “…it was he who brought us here, to this bitter, moon-pulled lake, trailing us after him unborn.” (p. 149)
Robinson, through Ruthie, describes the way that loss gives significance to that which otherwise would be commonplace. Ruthie explains how if her mother hadn’t left she would have remained unremarkable. She would have been just “Mom,” someone whom Ruthie would inevitably have found annoying or embarrassing, someone whom she tolerated as well as loved. Instead, the tiniest details of the last hours Ruthie was with her mother are alive and huge in Ruthie’s memory.
Of her relationship with her aunt Sylvie, Ruthie writes, “this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave me almost no thought at all.” (p. 195) I think about my two brothers, the one who died when I was very young and the one whose wedding I attended last year and how many more details I remember about the short life of the former than I do about the man-sized life of the latter. I think about how, if I don’t think about it too hard, my children and even my spouse seem more like an extension of myself than they do like autonomous persons. They are to me sort of like my hand or my arm are to me: I have to make a conscious effort to notice them. I love them, but they are too close, too present to stand out in my awareness all of the time.
Ruthie is also grappling with the effects of intentional and unintentional abandonment. “I was angry that she had left me for so long, and that she did not ask pardon or explain, and that by abandoning me she had assumed the power to bestow such a richness of grace.” (p.161) By creating a void, the abandoner takes on the power to fill that void. She makes herself significant through her absence. Her mother’s absence “established in me a habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain.” (p. 214) This certainly made me reflect on my relationship with my children. Do I absent myself in small or large ways that create a need in them that only I can fill? And do I do this intentionally, albeit unconsciously, so that I can experience the significance and power of “bestowing such richness of grace”?
A recurring image in the book is that of someone lost breaking into fragments so that she’s no longer in one place, no longer one being with distinct boundaries.
“And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water, our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantial—if they had weight and took up space—they would sink or be carried away in the general flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world. I think it must have been my mother’s plan to rupture this bright surface, to sail beneath it into very blackness, but here she was, wherever my eyes fell, and behind my eyes, whole and in fragments, a thousand images of one gesture, never dispelled but rising always, inevitably, like a drowned woman.” (p. 163)
When we lose someone integral to our lives, memories of them scatter and overlay everything. They end up everywhere, a constant ache that can never be soothed.
In addition to the big things, there are a few smaller quotes and images that I know will stick with me:
p. 182: “If their good works supplied the lack of other diversions, they were good women all the same.”
p. 180: “…she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and…she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.” (puts decluttering in a different light)
and my favorite:
“Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them.” (p. 154)
And this is what I kept comparing Clegg’s novel to. His novel had so many similar ideas, but in Housekeeping they just seemed more true in their messy, raw, metaphorical indirectness. Having made this error, I now know not to read any other novels alongside a novel by Marilynne Robinson. So close a proximity to her novels just leaves all others in the shadows.