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February 2019



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The Lost Girls: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson


I’m not keen on books where I have to read a sentence twice in order to get its meaning, so I was off to a bad start with Housekeeping. The opacity of the style was irritating and I kept thinking, grumpily, ‘There’s too much writing in this book!’ In spite of this, I did nothing at all one evening except read it and was astonished when I saw what the time was, so it must have something.

The lost girls, as I’ve termed them, are Ruthie and Lucille. Their mother abandons them to the care of their grandmother. She dies and two great aunts move in to take over the housekeeping. They find it too much for them and Aunt Sylvie, the drifter, the transient, turns up. That’s where the bad housekeeping begins. The small family lives in an old homestead in Fingerbone, which sounds an utterly ghastly place, the kind of place you’d want to escape from to New York or San Francisco. ‘Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.’ Not that nothing happens there. ‘The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime, there was an appalling accident.’

The girls grow up almost feral; truanting, wandering in the woods, staying out all night. Sylvie keeps a fire going and feeds them, while filling the house with emptied cans and old newspapers . For her, hoarding disorder seems to displace housekeeping. Lucille eventually rebels and opts for respectability. Ruthie dreamily becomes more and more like her strange aunt until people notice and take action. ‘Sylvie and I (I think that night we were almost a single person) could not leave that house, which was stashed like a brain, a reliquary, like a brain, its relics to be pawed and sorted and parceled out among the needy and the parsimonious of Fingerbone. … For we had to leave. I could not stay, and Sylvie would not stay without me. Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping.’ So they disappear.

I suppose this is a sad book and it certainly made me angry in places, to see rootless people dropping out of life. On the other hand, Sylvie tells Ruthie that drifting isn’t so bad and maybe that’s also true, for people who choose it. Not that Ruthie has much choice in life. Then again, maybe Grandmother had three daughters and one granddaughter, each of whom turned out in different ways to be completely bonkers. I must grudgingly admit that it’s a good book but I don’t like it. What other verdict would you expect from a person who thinks aspiring writers should study George Orwell as a model of clear prose style?


I liked the film more IIRC. Such a dreary, soul-destroying town I thought. Great review though as always Barbara.

Next Wednesday good for me btw if it's ok with you? Still adjusting to back to work, but slowly feeling less tired - will be lovely to see you! Will bring assorted books to see if you fancy any of them!
I haven't seen the film. It must be hard to convey the idea of all those floods and blizzards, and the menacing lake. Brrr.

That would be lovely!
Aw, I'm sorry to hear you don't like it. It's one of my very favourite books!
We can't all like the same things! I certainly wouldn't want to read it again.
You write such good reviews, B. Are you a professional? :)
For some reason, LJ didn't alert me to this comment by email. I'm glad you like the reviews and I'm not a professional, I just like writing about books.
I did like reading your review, and the way you say it's a good book, although you didn't like it - I always find it difficult when I read something, and can see the merit in the writing, but simply do not like it. I've looked at this several times, read bits and put it back, because I am at all sure it's my thing.
Thank you! Always easier to say why you don't like something than why you do, I find.


How I agree ... too many words. (Was it Joseph II who said, "Too many notes, Mozart?")
And wasn't it a terribly wet book ... far too damp and dreary for the moment.
I'm all for the George Orwell approach. I've been reading Virginia Woolf recently and although I love some of her descriptions of London, she makes me want to pick up her characters and shake the wordiness out of them. (At least, that was my verdict on Night and Day.)
Oh, Mozart never had too many notes!

The wet, the cold, ugh. The opening of Mrs Dalloway is so brilliant, but I never want to read further.



Such a coincidence ... I'm reading this on the 17th July, and the film of Housekeeping was on Film 4 yesterday afternoon. I watched just a little of it but found it toooooo depressing, and had to switch off. I can't say the book sounds much of an improvement, but a super review.
Margaret P

Re: Housekeeping

How did I miss the film? Luckily Film 4 usually repeats through a week so I can record it later, perhaps. It's certainly no feel good book. Thanks for your comment on the review.