The Housekeeper and the Professor

"The Housekeeper and the Professor" by Yoko Ogawa is a revelation. Even more than most Japanese novels, the writing here is spare and haunting. Amazingly, the author draws out the psyches of the four main characters through their reaction to mathematics.

The housekeeper is a single mom living a hardscrabble life. The mathematics professor was involved in an accident and can only remember the last 80 minutes. So, everyday, he meets the housekeeper and has to get to know her all over again. He does this by talking math with her, and over time, (because, of course, her memory is longer than 80 minutes) she picks up a new way of looking at the world. He also takes a shine to her child and acts like a totally responsible caring adult in his company (the only man in the child's life). The three of them end up forming a tight family unit. Lurking in the background is the professor's sister-in-law whose relationship with mathematics and the professor is painted in just a few bold brush strokes (which I won't spoil).

In one sense, the book is about the capability of elegant mathematics to illuminate our inner selves. In another sense, it's about the role of memories and affection within families. Even if you don't normally read fiction or translations, make an exception for this book.

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