Monday, May 17, 2010


This is a book that makes you want to rush out to read all the other books the author has written. The author's touch is sure, even while she handles the most impermanent of subjects. She has a way of piling up detail that is soothing, hypnotizing, but never boring. If you have a dreamy bone in your body, you will find a kindred spirit here.

Ruth and Lucille are sisters in what can delicately be termed an unusual family. Their history is tied to their town in spectacular ways. They can hardly walk outdoors without being reminded: the nearby lake is the scene of both their grandfather's drowning and their mother's suicide. Those two plunges--derailed train and accelerating car--prefigure a similar plunge by Ruth and Lucille, one that leads to life instead of death.

This is a novel one must read with an open mind. It vividly portrays the consequences and rewards of a certain kind of freedom, juxtaposed starkly against traditional social norms. It can also be read as a feminist viewpoint in contrast to the traditional patriarchy, and a celebration of wildness versus domesticity. It is about transience on several levels: not only moving from one place to another, but the struggle to create stability in the face of change. I found myself constantly challenged to stretch from my initial reactions to a broader viewpoint of what's "right" and "wrong" for children, for women, and for society.

Ultimately, much as my impulse was to think these sisters needed guidance and the right kind of encouragement--to detour them from the unconventional choices that were waiting for them--I had to examine my own values and consider how (and why) society perpetuates a rather narrow view of how we should live.

It seems that stories of "bad" childhoods make good literature. This book is both.

Excerpt (Ruth and her sister Lucille are in the care of their eccentric, flamboyant aunt Sylvie):

Lucille ground her teeth when Sylvie set out shopping. So did I, because I found, as Lucille changed, advantage in conforming my attitudes to hers. She was of the common persuasion. Time that had not come yet--an anomaly in itself--had the fiercest reality for her. It was a hard wind in her face; if she had made the world, every tree would be bent, every stone weathered, every bough stripped by that steady and contrary wind. Lucille saw in everything its potential for invidious change. She wanted worsted mittens, brown oxfords, red rubber boots. Ruffles wilted, sequins fell, satin was impossible to clean. None of the little elegances that Sylvie brought home for us was to be allowed its season. Sylvie, on her side, inhabited a millennial present. To her the deteriorations of things were always a fresh surprise, a disappointment not to be dwelt on. However a day's or a week's use might have maimed the velvet bows and plastic belts, the atomizers and gilt dresser sets, the scalloped nylon gloves and angora-trimmed anklets, Sylvie always brought us treasures.


  1. Great review. I enjoyed the excerpt.

  2. I've wanted to read this ever since reading Gilead. Gilead was kind of quiet, but beautifully written.

  3. I ADORED this book. Adored it. Gilead also was spectacular as was Home. Only sad she has written so few. I cannot say which I prefer, they are all so stunning. Her non-fiction is also stellar, though less compelling.

    I did just what you said, read Housekeeping and then bought the others, indeed I've read Housekeeping twice this year.

    Great review.

  4. This is on my list to read this summer along with Gilead, and Home. I was going to check it out at the library, but I think I maybe heading to the bookstore. Thanks for an insightful review.


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