THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR

From Japanese author Ogawa (The Diving Pool, 2008), the story of a struggling single mother who takes a job looking after an elderly mathematician with an unusual disability.

When the Akebono Housekeeping Agency dispatches the unnamed heroine to the shabby cottage occupied by the titular academic, there is little reason to think she would last any longer than the previous nine women who briefly worked there. He’s clearly not the average client. Seventeen years earlier the professor was in a devastating car accident that left him brain damaged, only able to remember 80 minutes at a time. He gets through the day solving math problems, and attaches notes to his clothes to remember what he needs to do. His memories prior to the accident, however, remain crystal clear, and he survives off the generosity of his widowed sister-in-law, on whose property he lives. Initially he’s not much of a talker, but the sweet, almost childlike housekeeper takes a liking to the vulnerable old man, even as she has to reintroduce herself to him every day. He teaches her about the elegance and order of numbers—his passion—while she dotes on him like a daughter. Through his lessons she sees the unexpected poetry in math and sets about solving some problems of her own. She also introduces him to her ten-year-old son, who he nicknames “Root” because the flat top of his head reminds him of the square-root sign. The professor instantly bonds with the fatherless boy, so she and Root spend more and more time at the professor’s home. The trio begins to resemble a family, with an unspoken understanding of each other that transcends language and convention. Trouble calls, though, when the sister-in-law, who has her own complicated history with the professor, misinterprets the housekeeper’s kindness as something more devious. Ogawa’s disarming exploration of an eccentric relationship reads like a fable, one that deftly balances whimsy with heartache.

Simple story, well told.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-312-42780-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2008

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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