It is safe to say that very few books will ever satisfy the infinite needs of all the readers who assess their contents. But, within the first pages of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, I knew I had stumbled upon a rarity. This text was not what I had expected from the title; in fact, I thought it might be a superficial romance. Instead, in this novel, I found a deeply moving love story. Not romantic love; but, the kind which exemplifies human nature in its finest moments. The story combined devastating loss, kindness, and the most profound sacrifices people make in the name of empathy and warmth co to show just how special people can be. This novel is innovative in its storytelling through memory and dialogue, beautiful in its creativity and imagery, heartwarming and heartbreaking through raw emotion. From start to finish it is unlike anything I have read before; it is pure perfection.
This short, touching, and irresistibly sweet text is relayed from the perspective a nameless Japanese housekeeper, who at a time in the past, a held a position caring for a man known only to the reader as the Professor. The author makes the decision to withhold much information about the two main characters, the Professor and housekeeper, from the reader. Still, the most essential details are revealed through the memories of the housekeeper’s days spent working for the Professor. Early on, the narrator tells what she learned when she took on the job caring for the man in his small guest house, “He has difficulties with his memory. He’s not senile, his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago he hit his head in an automobile accident. Since then he has been unable to remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975.He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago but he can’t remember what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms it’s as if he has a single eight minute video tape inside his head, and when he records anything new it only lasts eighty minutes, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes. (p. 5)” The revelation is profound and becomes even more so as her job and feelings for the Professor and his frailties grows. The more she learns about him, his life, wants, needs, and goodness, the more she is let down by his inability to retain the memory of her.
As the days pass by the Professor and the housekeeper develop a serious relationship through the molding of past and present events. She learns that he was and still is a mathematical genius who must now wear post-it notes covering his suit coat as reminders to complete even the simplest tasks. He depends upon her and her son Root for care, support, friendship, and love. What attaches the reader to the story beyond the mere bond that ensues is the idea that there is a true and unrequited love the Housekeeper feels for the Professor which, tragically, can never be returned. This is because the Professor can never know her feelings nor her sacrifice for him. She sees his plights and cares for him like no one else, and her gifts will never be returned. There is something about her love that is very familiar to the reader and very beautiful.
Even though this is not a romance, and in many ways the incapacity of the characters to experience love in conventional ways can be sad, there are many moments of extreme happiness to hold on to in the book. Whether it comes through walks in the park, the completing of mathematical equations that represent nature or the universe, or taking a trip to a baseball game, the company of another person can provide solace in times of struggle and sorrow. The reader feels joy knowing that despite setbacks and suffering humans bring real happiness, satisfaction, and meaning to each other’s lives.
Final Rating: 4 out 5 Stars
Other Books by Yoko Ogawa: