Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fiction Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Both of my sons were assigned to read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa for summer reading in high school, and they both enjoyed the slim novel. I have had it on my want-to-read shelves for a while now and finally found time to read it recently. I loved this warm, gentle story about creating family.

The Housekeeper, a woman with a 10-year old son, tells the story of being hired to take care of a math Professor whose short-term memory is limited to the past 80 minutes, ever since he experienced a traumatic brain injury. Under the circumstances, this proves to be an unusual job for her, unlike any other in her long experience of housekeeping. Given his limitations, the Professor often has difficulty connecting with other people, but he uses numbers as a bridge. For example, when he opens the door to the Housekeeper (who has become a stranger to him again overnight) each morning, he greets her with some sort of numerical question, as on her first day of work:
“’What’s your shoe size?’

This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants, and so I told him.

‘Twenty-four centimeters.’

‘There’s a sturdy number,’ he said. ‘It’s the factorial of four.’

He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.

‘What’s a factorial?’ I asked at last. I felt I should try to find out a bit more since it seemed to be connected to his interest in my shoe size.

‘The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is twenty-four,’ he said, without opening his eyes. ‘What’s your telephone number?’

He nodded, as if deeply impressed. ‘That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.’

It wasn’t immediately clear to me why my phone number was so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn’t showing off; he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly convinced me that there was something special about my phone number and that I was somehow special for having it.”

I could have gone on quoting from the book for pages! I hope this gives you an idea of the warmth and cleverness of this novel and of the special relationship that begins to grow between the Housekeeper and the Professor, even at this very first meeting. Despite his lack of short-term memory, the Professor uses his vast knowledge of numbers and math not only to reach out to the Housekeeper but also to tutor her. When her son comes along for the first time, the Professor is delighted with him and immediately nicknames him Root because his flat head reminds him of the square root sign (of which he is exceptionally fond).

As the novel progresses, the relationships between these three characters slowly grow and expand. Despite the fact that none of the characters in this novel has a name (except for Root’s nickname), the reader comes to know them and care about them. There are little math lessons sprinkled in among the story, as the Professor shares his knowledge with the Housekeeper and her son; many of these mathematical details are fascinating and little known.

I absolutely loved this book and never wanted it to end. It is about three people who create a family of their own and about what it means to live constantly in the present (incidentally, the Professor’s affliction is not fictional; there are really people with this condition, as described in Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain). The characters are warm and endearing, and the story is gentle yet engaging. I can see why this novel has become a modern classic and why it is required reading now for many students.

180 pages, Picador (St. Martin’s Press)



  1. We read this last year in one of my book clubs and it was a favorite. I even added it to my high school library and one girl, who read it, came back and requested more books by the same author. How was it used as a required reading assignment?

  2. It was summer reading for both of my sons, Anne - one the summer before senior year and the younger one the summer before his sophomore year.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed it, too!