The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

houseookcover.phpIn a small town on the Inland Sea of Japan, a housekeeper who works for the Akebono Housekeeping Agency receives a new assignment.  She will keep house and cook meals every afternoon for a professor who sustained brain damage in an automobile accident.  As the professor’s sister-in-law informs her, the professor has only eighty minutes of short-term memory at a time.

It takes the housekeeper some time to get used to the professor’s odd ways, but after a while she begins to enjoy the ritual by which he greets her every afternoon, asking her questions about herself as if he has just met her.  His clothing is studded with notes to help him remember, so the housekeeper attaches a new note with a whimsical drawing of herself.  Each day when she comes, she points to the drawing.

Their relationship really begins to develop when the professor meets her 10-year-old son.  He has a flat top to his head, so the professor calls him Root, for the square root sign. Everything the professor remembers is somehow connected to mathematics, because that is what he has taught, lived, and breathed his whole life.  With the infinite patience of one who has no appointments to keep, the professor helps Root and his mom understand math in a way they never have before, and they too start to see the beauty of numbers all around them.

Math becomes a means of comfort and communication for them all.  Root has someone to talk with about his beloved baseball statistics. The professor, harried by details he cannot remember, takes refuge in the permanent, ordered world of math. The housekeeper gains a new understanding of the world and of her own intelligence by learning about logarithms, Mersenne primes, and Fermat’s Last Theorem.

This is the bare bones of the plot, but the story is so much more than that.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is a quiet, gently humorous book about love, belonging, and friendship, about the rewards of patience and small acts of kindness, gratitude, and remembrance.  As such, I will remember it for a long time.

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