A painful story of a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, Housekeeping is nonetheless beautifully written and highly evocative. Two young sisters Ruth and Lucille are left alone when their unmoored mother dumps them at their grandmother’s house at a tender age, and then proceeds to drive herself off a cliff and into a lake, the same lake that her own father—a dreamy, frustrated, and regret-filled man–had died in following a train wreck years earlier.
Their aged Nona is a loving and gentle caregiver, but a rather bewildered person who still broods over what happened to her own three little girls after they grew up and fled in different directions. When the grandmother dies after five years of caring for the little girls, they end up in the care of two fearful great aunts incapable of interacting with the children and desperate for their tour of duty to end. Finally, their mother’s youngest sister Sylvie wanders into their lives, giving the elderly aunts a chance to flee and leaving Ruth and Lucille to get lost in Sylvie’s eccentric lifestyle of sitting in the dark, dressing and eating whenever and whatever strikes her fancy, appearing and disappearing at odd times, and clearly afflicted with the mental illness to which the girl’s mother had succumbed.
The girls respond differently to their aunt, with Lucille increasingly determined to carve out some normalcy in their lives and eventually moving into the home of a protective teacher, while Ruth adapts to Sylvie’s worldview even while recognizing its inherent lunacy. They all live in a small town in the mountainous western U.S., in a claustrophic dead-end community which tries to mind its own business.
After some rather dramatic moments representing possible forks in the road for Ruth, the book ends with a depressing whimper and left me in sad reflection on the turns life can take. In truth, author Robinson writes exquisitely, her simple turns of phrase filled with metaphor and nuance, but I unfortunately can’t say that Housekeeping was a favorite.