"Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson

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In "Housekeeping" Marilynne Robinson establishes herself as the very best of living American authors. This novel perches on the fraught balance between living and dead, drowning and flying, orthodox and outcast.

In a lonely town in the Far West, where "the history of the world happened elsewhere," there is a house owned by Sylvie and Ruth's family. Sylvie is Ruth's aunt and is very little more than a drifter. Lucille is Ruth's younger sister and she occupies the house. This remote town sits on the shore of Lake Fingerbone, a deep and dark expanse of water that has claimed, in circumstances dark or disastrous or both, the lives of some of Ruth's forebears, including her mother. Sylvie comes back to the house with Ruth, but has no intention of staying. In one of the book's very significant episodes she and Ruth try to traverse the lake by crawling along the railroad bridge that arches over the water, and although this attempt fails, we know where Sylvie's heart, and eventually Ruth's too, lie. They want to traverse Fingerbone (to abjure working their fingers to the bone, as it were), take to the road, and see what tomorrow brings. They ultimately do not want the anchor of the house. Lucille, the orthodox member of the family, cannot understand the impulse, and is completely willing to settle down and make a go of things. Every feeling we get from this character is that she will succeed at it.

This was my introduction to Ms. Robinson, and I was completely stunned, awestruck. Her striking gift with words is well-known (see "Gilead" and "Home" and assorted non-fiction), but it's her gift with the larger issues in her stories that sweeps me away here. She poses an age-old question: how do you measure success in life? Are our hopes for material success doomed endlessly? Is an orthodox career through life as heavy as a lake, as suffocating as a bottomless body of water?

This is one of the best books I have ever read, or will ever read. Ms. Robinson fills me with wonder at her conception and her execution. Read it for the thrill of having a classic in the author's lifetime.
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