Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The premise: A housekeeper, her name is never revealed, is hired by an elderly lady to look after her brother-in-law who lives in the cottage at the back of her house. The professor, also not named, a renowned and brilliant mathematician, is in his 80s and suffers from a condition, due to a car accident, where he cannot remember anything for more than 80 minutes at a time; once the time is up, those around him have to re-introduce themselves and begin again. Thus, he has reminder notes pinned to his coat, one of which says, “My memory only lasts for 80 minutes.” Into this mix comes the housekeeper’s son, Root – the professor calls him Root because the flatness of the the boys head reminds him of the square root sign – who the professor demands come to the cottage so that he is not alone at home while his mother is working.

Thus begins the story of the these three unlikely people as they establish routines and go about becoming a family. We learn about the housekeeper’s history and her struggle as a single mother; we watch Root grow up and learn the most important life lessons; and we finally, learn the circumstances behind the professor’s accident that stops his memory in 1975, his love of baseball, his love of a woman he cannot remember, and his mathematical genius.

This is a lovely, unassuming novel about people and their daily lives. As one reviewer said, reading this novel is “… like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters can lurk currents you don’t see until you are in them” ( I absolutely loved this novel; and, while I read this quite a while ago, I remember every detail. The one thing I would wish for is that I had had math teachers as brilliant and poetic as the professor.


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