The Housekeeper and The Professor – Yoko Ogawa

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The Housekeeper and the Professor Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Five words from the blurb: maths, memory, affection, riddles, past

People have raved about The Housekeeper and The Professor ever since its release last year, but although I enjoyed reading it I wasn’t bowled over in the way most other readers have been.

The book centres on a maths professor with a short-term memory only eighty minutes long. He vividly remembers events from his past, but all new information is quickly forgotten. This means that the professor never recognises his housekeeper and she must reintroduce herself each morning. Despite this fact she becomes enchanted by him. He shows her the beauty of numbers and forms a strong bond with her son.

This is a beautiful little book, but I think its main charm is the way that it introduces a love for mathematics.

I ran my fingers over the lines of the formula, a long chain of numbers and symbols that flowed from one page to the next. As I followed the chain, link by link, the room faded and I found myself in a dark, silent place of numbers. But I felt no fear, certain in the knowledge that the Professor would guide me toward eternal, unchangeable truths.

The professor introduces prime numbers, perfect numbers, amicable numbers and many other basic mathematical concepts. The problem was that I was already aware of most of them and so they didn’t produce the magical sense of wonder that they have clearly induced in others.

The writing was simple and engaging, but it wasn’t as emotional as I was expecting. The overall feeling was one of tenderness and I think this is the type of book that you should read if you are in the mood something gentle and heartwarming.

If you can’t imagine enjoying a novel containing mathematics then I urge you to give this book a try, but if you already have a love of numbers it may be a bit too basic.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Characters, themes and a gently developing plot are perfectly blended. Fleur Fisher in her World

I would never have believed that mathematics could be so seamlessly woven into fiction that I hardly questioned its presence there. Erin Reads

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a very quiet, very subtle book. At the same time, it’s a page-turner, a book you just don’t want to put down. How often do you come across books like this? su [shu]

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  1. “The writing was simple and engaging, but it wasn’t as emotional as I was expecting. The overall feeling was one of tenderness and I think this is the type of book that you should read if you are in the mood something gentle and heartwarming.”

    I couldn’t agree with the above sentences more! TENDERNESS is exactly the word I was looking for when I wrote my review, but couldn’t think of it then. So I called it a “quiet” book instead. Here is my review if you are interested:

    1. Jackie says:

      christa, Quiet is another good word to describe this book. :-) I don’t normally enjoy quiet books, but the story was so touching I couldn’t help fall in love with the characters. Glad you enjoyed it too.

  2. Annabel says:

    Despite knowing some maths of the sort in this book, I absolutely loved it. I found it gentle, beguiling and quirky, yet utterly serene in that Japanese sort of way.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I tend to prefer books with a darker, more powerful side so I think it says something about the quality of the book when I enjoy something so gentle. Serene is another great description of this book. :-)

  3. Karen says:

    I have had this book on my shelf for the longest time but I think the maths thing has made me stay away!Unlike you Jackie I do not have a love of numbers – I still shudder when I think of high school maths classes and am amazed I made it out of there alive!But it sounds like this book may be one for me anyway – I like the way you describe it as heartwarming and as long as that doesn’t mean soppy I think it will be a book for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, This book isn’t soppy and with your hatred of numbers I’d love to know your thoughts on it. I hope you decide to get to it soon – it is quite short so shouldn’t take that long to read.

  4. For me too, having a mathematics background, I was not bowled over by the mathematics elements themselves but the artful way in which Ogawa explained the concepts for a broader audience. Charming is the perfect descriptor…

    1. Jackie says:

      Booklover Book Reviews, I agree that Ogawa should be praised for introducing mathematics to a broad audience – if only there were more maths teachers like him in schools. :-)

  5. Tony says:

    I was one who was not quite as enthusiastic as most – but I did use maths in my review ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Tony, I love the equation in your review!

  6. JoV says:

    Like Tony I used maths on my review too! Glad you liked it Jackie, I thought it’s understated and heartwarming… and yes the maths is basic. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I impressed that you used maths in your review too – I’m feeling very dull for not having included some.

  7. Sasha says:

    I had to do the maths too! I loved that part, oddly enough. I felt so accomplished, and worthy of the Professor’s head-pat, haha.

    Anyway, I think there’s so much reserve in Ogawa’s story. Yes, I haven’t had much experience with translated Japanese literature, but, from my occasional secondhand brushes with the culture, it really felt like this novel captured that stillness–that tenderness–and even the otherworldly quaintness my impression of Japanese life demands. I don’t know. I liked this, yes, but I can’t help but feeling what an unabashedly powerful work it would be, with a less restrained writer–the emotions, the nameless characters, the images (those pieces of paper on his suit!). Then again, maybe that would have ruined it. Again, haha, I don’t know.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sasha, The Housekeeper and the Professor is the perfect introduction to Japanese literature. Most of it shares “stillness–that tenderness–and even the otherworldly quaintness” you mention, so if you loved this then I’m sure you’ll enjoy many of books written by Japanese authors.

      I’d also like to read the powerful version of this story. It would be a very different book, but with the right author it could be just as good, if not better. Perhaps someone will write it for us one day. :-)

  8. Kailana says:

    I do want to read this at some point, but my library doesn’t have a lot of Japanese books…

    1. Jackie says:

      Kailana, Sorry to hear that your library doesn’t have it in stock. Mine didn’t either (although I think it does now) and so I asked for it for my birthday (Thanks Mum + Dad!) I hope you can get your hands on a copy sometime soon.

  9. Loved this book, I thought it was excellent and its one that I thought about for weeks and weeks after I had finished it. Her other book Hotel Iris is brilliant. Glad you read it and enjoyed it.

    P.S thanks for the Waverton Good Read link, what a great set of lists.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I plan to get to Hotel Iris one day. I’m glad to hear that it is just as good.

  10. I’ve had this on the to-read list following the rave reviews I’ve been seeing around. Thanks for a fantastic review. I do like math, so if anything, the review makes me want to read the book ever quicker!

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, You can’t avoid the rave reviews for this one on the Internet. I look forward to finding out if you’ll add another one to the blogosphere.

  11. I enjoyed this one as well. Glad u liked it Jackie.

  12. Violet says:

    I don’t have any particular love for Mathematics although I’m aware of the basic concepts. It will still be interesting to read something that centers around it. Thanks for the review Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I think you’ll be surprised at how an author can include so much mathematics into a novel. Give it a try. :-)

  13. Aths says:

    I’ve also been hearing a lot of positive opinions about this book. I guess I’m still intrigued about this one so I may give it a try, but I can also see where it may not work that well. Good review!


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