Marilynne Robinson

comments: 27

Housekeeping_1 "I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of needles. I was afraid of an inchworm. I was afraid of other people. I thought other people were treacherous, particularly in elementary school, which I thought was a dangerous time in life. I remember sudden, inexplicable shifts in friendship; you'd go home for one day with a cold, come back, and everything would be different. I also tend to be now -- and apparently was then -- a governed person. I never understood what the rules were, but I lived in terror of breaking them. Reading seemed like a pretty safe activity, compared to the horror of the rest of it."
     -- Sue Grafton, from When I Was a Girl (Pocket Books, 2003)

As I've mentioned, if I consider myself anything, it's a reader. My father was one too, and it was not uncommon for us both to be at the dinner table with our left hands holding down books, our rights forking in peas, the conversation of others swirling past and beyond us. My sisters and mother don't share this obsession, but their tolerance for it was barely even remarked upon -- for years and years we ate dinner like this and it never seemed weird to me until I got older and felt strangely bored eating over at other people's houses with nothing to read. For this particular genetic inheritance (reading in general, not the reading-while-eating skill, though it's handy to have) I am grateful.

Tomorrow night I'm going to see Marilynne Robinson, the author of one of my favorite -- probably my very favorite -- novels,  Housekeeping. I always think of it as the novel that made it possible for me to be something other than a writer, and I'm intensely grateful for that, too. I felt a preternatural affinity for this story when I first read it, and I still feel that; telling my own story exhausted and eluded me, and seemed like something I would never be able to get right. Housekeeping was the first book I'd read that gave a strange kind of substance to my own strange, melancholy childhood, though its plot was nothing like my own -- but its essence, the unraveling and re-knitting of its ideas and images, rang so familiar and clear that I finished it with huge relief, and quietly started making plans to do other things.

First published in 1981, it has been in and out of print since then; back in, of course, now that she's won the Pulitzer for Gilead, her second novel, written 23 years later. If you're not familiar with the book Housekeeping, you may have heard of the movie, which is lovely itself, and patiently captures the tension and mercury-glass mood in its perfectly wrought details and subtle performances, especially those of the young actors playing the the two sisters (Christine Lahti plays their aunt, and she's very good, too). But even viewing the film is far enhanced by reading the book, which reveals itself in the smallest and most delicate of ways, and before you know it you're knee-deep in the most lacy of metaphors, trembling. It's hard for me to really talk about it, because I feel clunky and heavy-handed no matter what I say. When you read the book, you even feel like you should hold it carefully.

When I went to graduate school in creative writing at the University of Montana in 1994, Marilynne Robinson was discussed by the writers around town in hushed tones. She had been a visiting professor there, I think, before my time -- I could never quite get exactly what she'd done at U of M -- but she was originally from Idaho and had some connections with the Missoula crowd. I remember walking to the bar one night after class with one of our teachers and she said that Marilynne was known for being kind of cagey about the book, and didn't like talking about it -- I think my teacher said that she'd felt she'd said all she had to say in the book itself and was impatient discussing its implications or origins.

I remember being utterly in concert with this idea, and also the notion that someone might just have one great novel in them. Housekeeping had always seemed to me like a book she'd needed to write, not because she was trying to be a famous "writer" but because the story compelled her to tell it -- I had no idea if this was true, but it felt true. My colleagues were much savvier about the "business" of writing than I; they openly admitted to being there to make connections and find publishers (and did -- many are quite successful now, and I get to see them at Powell's when they come through on book tours). I was completely ignorant in this -- I even felt, in my naivete, that there was something a little obscene about it, and the idea of having to court publishers the way one might rush a sorority filled me with dread and panic. It seemed that Marilynne Robinson could not be swayed by the machinery of the industry, and yet her book was the best; it seemed that she'd written it, and walked away. It reminds me now of something our niece said when she was about four or five. She'd been bandaging up a big stuffed whale (more on why we would have a life-size stuffed killer whale around here later) with first-aid tape and band-aids. I watched her for a while as she diligently taped every fin. I said, "Oh, my, what a good doctor you are!" She ignored me. "Should we call you 'Dr. Arden' now?" She ignored me, bending closer to her whale's injured fin, hoping I would shut up. "Oh, Dr. Arden, your juice is ready!" I sang out. But she'd had enough, and turned to me with a withering stare (I'd never seen a "withering stare" until this one, though I'd read of them many times) and said: "I don't care what you call me, I just care about the work."

Well. Out of the mouths of babes.

Of course, Marilynne Robinson didn't literally write the book and walk away, but in a sense she did, and at 24 this seemed to me an incredible act of independence and confidence. I clung to it as a possibility during those feverish, confusing years at school where I couldn't hide my limitations, and bared the backs of my knees to the workshop while they pummeled those soft white hollows with their little sticks. There is something still so inherently reassuring to me about the book and the way she delivered it, as someone who makes things and puts them out in front of the world for all to see, and buy, and say something about. Housekeeping seems almost holy in this respect, like a prayer. It is an entirely noncommercial novel, and yet it has managed to find a passionate, grateful audience because it is so beautiful.

I've not kept up with Marilynne Robinson's career, or the world of literary fiction the way I used to, though I do know that she teaches at the Iowa Writing Workshop, which is sort of the ultimate destination in MFA programs. I looked up Housekeeping on and was shocked to see that there is only one copy of something called Reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping which is all of 70 pages and selling for $197.48. I've picked up Gilead countless times but have never read it, afraid I wouldn't feel the same infatuation for a 76-year-old Congregationalist preacher-man as I did for Ruthie and Lucille. I wouldn't read any of the countless on-line reviews, and I don't want a new copy of the book, and I'm sort of nervous about going to the lecture. So many people have discovered her while I've been off the scene. For so long I'd felt like Housekeeping was my book, somehow -- a secret I shared only with those I trusted completely, and I would offer it up to them two-handed, with an earnest, twitching hopefulness: Love this (and me), please.

But I bet that Marilynne will be just like I think she will be -- beyond all of this nutterbutter. And all I'll say when I meet her is Thank you. Thank you so much.


Wow. How wonderful that you get to meet her and thank her for her influence. Sometimes I read what you post and think I can't believe how much we have in common and other times I'm just in awe of you. You seem like such a well rounded person and I think that's wonderful. You're so lucky to have had a father who loved you and shared so much with you! Not everyone shares that type of special bond. I giggled when you talked about reading with your left hand and eating with your right. I did the very same thing as a child (and still do). I was the odd one though! My mom did not like it! lol Oh well! ;) PS- I'm starting a list of your reading recommendations. Thanks so much for sharing!

Thanks for letting us in on your secret book. After your amazing review, I've popped over to put it on hold at the library. You are quite a gifted writer, regardless of what you are writing about (books, crafting, life, etc.), I find myself simply enamored with your words and phrases.

Ah -- I just read Housekeeping for the first time. My husband came home from the library and handed it to me and told me that he thought I would like it. I did. And I know I'll be reading it again and again. It 's so dense and incredible and just so -- well, so what a book should be. (I'm also a voracious reader and your post struck a chord with me.)

I remember reading this book years ago and was struck by its honesty and youthful pearls of wisdom. Your review makes me want to delve into it again. Good books are great that way, you can always learn new things you missed the first time around. Certain things speak to us during different times in our lives. Thanks for sharing about it and your memories reading at the table with your dad. We have that in common too.

I read Housekeeping in college and loved it. You describe the tone of it so well! And how funny that you studied creative writing at UM. I have some friends who attended, and you probably knew them, since they were there around the same time! I was studying creative writing down the road at EWU then. Small world!

I think you are a wonderful writer right here in your blog. You write in an incredibly articulate and evocative manner.

I was always a voracious reader but lately I replace that all too often with TV, I need to fix that!

I literally had tears in my eyes as I read your last paragraph. All I can say is, "me too".

Alicia - what a wonderful review. Now I know why I am drawn to your blog - you are a writer, first last and always. This was a beautiful entry and now I cannot wait to get Housekeeping - a new copy of course, but the message appears to be timeless. Thank you for sharing.

wow. Housekeeping is my favorite book. i've reccommended it to so many people who just did not appreciate it at much as i did. i've never met anyone else who loves it as much as me, and i am now convinced we are kindred spirits.

btw - i haven't read Gilead either.

wow. you can sell a book! ;) I just popped on over and ordered it. I can't wait for it to come. THank you!!

I, too, was worried that Gilead might be a letdown after Housekeeping, but I read it over Christmas and can tell you that it is everything you could possibly want it to be. Even more than Housekeeping, it is a super-literary experience--it affected me and gave me so much more than novels usually can. I am getting excited for you that you get to read it now! It is a thing of loveliness and joy.

I'm intrested in Sue Grafton's book but can't find it anywere - not even amazon has got this book . Where can I get it from ? Thank you in adavance :)

alicia, i read housekeeping some fifteen years ago and was just as haunted by it as you...i so very very much understand what you say about the notion that "someone might just have one great novel in them. Housekeeping had always seemed to me like a book she'd needed to write, not because she was trying to be a famous "writer" but because the story compelled her to tell it". i feel precisely this way about To Kill a Mockingbird, the single, shining book that harper lee chose to write (or to publish, at any rate).
it is my hope and earnest prayer that you'll take your writings beyond this blog and into the publishing world!! your words are as delicate, delicious, beautiful, and treasured as any that marilynne robinson or harper lee could ever write. i mean that. we all love reading your blog for that very reason (among others, of course).
i'm quite duly and pleasurably ensconced in Little, Big at the present, thanks to you.
keep up the good words - best, nina

i am taking this opprotunity to de-lurk... i love reading your blog.

a few years ago housekeeping was recommended to me by the owner of our local used book store... he had watched me grow up in the store and watched my purchases and when i was 25 he pressed the paperback into my hand and said "this book has a magic that i know you will understand". i read it and loved it... then i loaned it to my momma and she never returned it...

it had slipped into the back of my mind and i've read countless books since then, and i always frogot to ask victor(the store owner) about another copy when i go by the store...

i remembered last friday... i bought it again... i'm excited to finish the book i'm reading now because finishing it means i get to begin housekeeping again...

the strange thing is... i dont remember what the book is about.. but i remember the way it felt... and the way i felt about it matches what you had to say about it perfectly...

thank you for the background on it!


Thank you for sharing this with us! I have added it to my "must read" list (right under Little, Big)!

Ah! I knew some of you had to be Housekeeping lovers too; and thank you for the Gilead recommendation. I did read some M.R. interviews yesterday afternoon -- in them, she has a way of explaining things I don't understand or haven't thought about that makes me feel like I *could* be the type of person who thinks about and understands such things. I love her. Anyhoo, wanted to say that the When I Was a Girl book (from which the inchworm quote is taken) is not actually by Sue Grafton (she is just a contributor) -- it's by Alison Pollet and Linda Ellerbee, so just try searching for the title. Better yet, buy both these books from your local independent bookseller! (They probably even have a web site.)

a) you are an amazing writer.
b) thank you for the book recommendation.
c) i want one of the bird pieces you posted below.
d) can't wait to meet you.

I have recently discovered your lovely blog and I am addicted to your writing. Thank you so much for sharing your gift with the world.

I think you should print out your post, place it in an envelope and hand it to Ms. Robinson as you thank her. Beautiful words.

I'm a longtime lurker but had to come out of hiding to add that I, too, was reluctant to read "Gilead" after "Housekeeping," which I discovered during my MFA program at Alabama. "Gilead's" subject matter didn't appeal to me; I was afraid I'd be disappointed. But a monk I met at a retreat spoke so highly of it that I finally checked it out. It is that same type of small jewel that "Housekeeping" is. It will make you love her more.

I think this is a tremendous coincidence. I attended University of Iowa and worked at the Iowa Review while I was an undergraduate. The professor who was in charge of the magazine recommended this book to me several years ago. (For the record I attended '83-87 and we've stayed in touch long since I've moved away.) I read the book and thought it to be absolutely terrible. It left me with such a "blah...." feeling. Her characters seem to so completely embody the midwestern image and feel of actual people I knew while growing up there. I find is very interesting as you speak of the "tension and mercury-glass mood," which to me was completely abhorrent, as I grew up with people who had traits just like those two characters. Very, very interesting to get other individual's views on things - especially a book that is mildly obscure. Forgive me if I rain on this parade of sorts, but I was so taken with the fact that the book has shown up on your site for discussion......

I live in Portland, too. My book group read 'Housekeeping' about 5 months ago and we all loved it.

I actually found out about your blog at Loobylu and now I have to come out and see your store. (I used to own a yarn store in the Pearl District, years ago, so I can relate to alot of the things that happen in the business world...)

Great blog. Lucky girl to have tickets to see M. Robinson. Can't wait to hear how she is.

Wow! Thanks for telling us about the book, I'm rushing out to get it tomorrow. I haven't read it before but I remember feeling that way before. Also - had a "small world" moment with UM in Missoula - I live in Billings now - my undergrad is from a liberal arts college in Oregon and I had always planned to go to grad school to get my MFA. My dream was to go to Iowa Writer's Workshop. But life happened...and it's 25 years later ...and I never got my MFA. Wish I wasn't so far from Mizz.
I enjoy your blog too and next time I come to Portland (was just there 2 weeks ago) I coming to your shop.

Thanks for the tip! I've ordered the book from my library, I'll get back to you once I've read it.

I used to be so annoyed that I wasn't allowed to read at the dinner table as a child. My parents are readers too, but the meals were sacred. At breakfast, I always read the text on the milk carton (the words "pasteurisert" and "homogenisert" have lodged themselves on my mind). At Christmas, my parents delighted in telling my boyfriend how I, when I was five, told them to drive more slowly beacuse I didn't have time to read all the signs.

I recently found your blog, and now very much love it! This entry really stuck with me. While I have never read Housekeeping, everything you said applies to some of my most cherished books...lovely, just lovely!

i'm curious as to what she will be like when you meet her. I was good friends with her son in high school and she was always really standoffish. not to insult your author... i just always wondered how someone who seemed the way she did had written that book.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


post a comment

About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at