Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a novel about the interplay of memory and imagination. The story is narrated by a granddaughter and opens with the patriarch who moved his family out west to Montana where he is killed riding a train that derails on a bridge and plunges into the depths of the frigid, wintery water. The middle daughter, and mother of the narrator, has two daughters herself and after a failed marriage suddenly drops off her two young daughters with her mother, whereupon she drives a borrowed car over a cliff to commit suicide.
The grandmother raises Ruthie, the narrator, and Lucille with unflinching and stoic determination until the time of her death when both sisters are still rather young. The free-spirited and transient aunt Sylvie is summoned to assume guardianship where she takes on the role of caretaker, although she lacks what the townspeople consider traditional maternal instincts.
One day the girls skip school and furtively follow Sylvie’s trail on one of her morning walks to see where she goes. After catching sight of her on a bridge walking along the train tracks, the girls call out fearful Sylvie will abandon them, too. Sylvie’s intentions are unclear in terms of whether she would have committed suicide, but in that moment, Sylvie recognizes a fear that their fate will be left in the hands of others yet again, and she comforts them and provides the reassurance they so desperately need.
As the pair start to mature, Ruthie is drawn nearer to Sylvie and Lucille grows apart when she becomes self-conscious of Sylvie’s unconventional style of a homemaker and seeks the shelter of a more nurturing adult figure.
Marilynne Robinson’s talent is evident in her creative descriptions used to portray physical spaces: properties of snow and ice, the colors of light in the water and sky, and the darkness of the forest. However, there is a sparseness when it comes to her characters conveying any feeling or emotion, which leaves the reader guessing about their motivations. Housekeeping captures the confusion of a child who does not understand the events unfolding in the adult world, and it would not be unusual for someone like Ruthie to turn her attention and imagination to things such as what lies beneath the water, or what’s in the forest. Although it might be part of the voice Marilynne Robinson uses for her narrative, it doesn’t lead to an understanding of Ruthie or Sylvie in any way, and therefore it’s a journey that somehow lacks a payoff.