Book Title: The Housekeeper and the Professor
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Relationships spring up in the strangest places, between the most unlikely people. And it is these relationships that make for the best stories. The Housekeeper and the Professor is one such tale – the story of a friendship between a housekeeper and a professor. ‘Friendship’ might not even be the right word here. It’s more a connection forged through the housekeeper’s kindness and empathy.
But let me first tell you what the story is about
The Professor, a brilliant mathematician, suffered an accident that impaired his brain. His memory now lasts only 80 minutes. He has reminder notes pinned to his suit, however, they aren’t much help.
No housekeeper is able to stay on with him until finally the agency sends over a new one — a single mom with a ten-year-old son. She has to introduce herself everyday and begin work anew.
While he might have no recollection of routine events, the Professor retains his brilliance as well as his passion for Mathematics. He strikes up a special relationship with the housekeeper’s son naming him Root (for the square root sign, because he has a flat head. That was adorable) and tutoring him.
His love for the subject is infectious. The housekeeper gets caught up in his enthusiasm and finds herself puzzling over mathematical problems he sets for her son. She learns to love numbers just as he does.
Despite occasional ups and downs, their relationship evolves into a very special one.
What I loved
For me, the hero of this story was Maths. That was the book’s strength as well as its weakness. Most of us (including me) have a bumpy relationship with the subject. However the Professor’s love for the subject comes through endearingly. He finds comfort in the familiarity of numbers.
Each time he is in an uncomfortable situation he looks to them for support. For instance, when he’d meet someone he was more likely to ask him for their shoe size or telephone number rather than their name. One can almost see the numbers zipping around in his head at lightening speed, slotting themselves into meticulous rows, making a million connections with all other numbers, each connection clear as day to the Professor.
What was even more incredible was the way his enthusiasm rubs onto the (almost) illiterate housekeeper. His life and his passion begins to matter more to her than to him.
The book reiterated the importance of empathy and kindness and the fact that those were the only ingredients required for friendship.
What didn’t work for me
The book fell short on two counts. One, rather obviously, the lengthy mathematical descriptions and two, descriptions of baseball games. Like I said, Math isn’t my favourite subject and as for baseball, it is entirely incomprehensible. That’s of course not the fault of the book, however, I would have liked it better had it been more focussed on the emotional content.
Last thought: If you are someone in love with Maths and familiar with baseball in Japan, you’ll super love the book.