Upon meeting the tenth
housekeeper hired to care for him, the
Professor launches into a math lesson on
magical numbers, focusing on the special
prime numbers. Rather than being annoyed or
intimidated like the others, the Housekeeper
becomes intrigued, determined to make the
relationship work. She draws the Professor
out, asking him to explain his ideas, and he
blossoms further when her young son begins
to visit with him after school. Since the
Professor's memory constantly dissolves, the
introductions begin anew every morning and
each day is an opportunity to create a new
The title characters are known to the reader only by their professions, and the symbolic anonymity adds to the fable-like feel of the story. The Housekeeper's ten-year-old son is known as Root so named by the Professor because of the shape of the boy's head and hair reminds him of the square root symbol. Root's name is further symbolic; he is clearly the anchor and sustaining force in his mother's life.
As the Professor and Root spend more time together, they discover a common passion: baseball. Root avidly follows the Tigers, a major league team, and the Professor is a fan of Enatsu, the team's star player from twenty years ago. The Housekeeper convinces the Professor to join her and Root at a game, and although he has a fear of crowds, and still believes Enatsu is playing, the three bond over the game. Slowly, the unlikely trio becomes a wonderfully unusual family. Even though the Professor cannot remember that he has met Root before, his growing love for the boy doesn't disappear with his memories it takes up residence deep in his heart and changes him.
The Professor's math lessons achieve what only the very best math teachers can: he makes math seem beautiful, almost magical. As he describes his passion to the Housekeeper, "The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn't going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers."
Yoko Ogawa's writing is delicate and poetic, describing sounds you can almost hear: the gentle patter of the rain was punctuated by the scratching of pencil on paper, or crafting metaphors that drive to the heart of abstract emotions: the image I have of my father is that of a statue in a museum. No matter how close I come to him, I can't get his attention, he continues to stare off into the distance without looking down, and never reaches out his hand to me.
Ogawa's fine prose and enchanting characters easily wind their way into your heart as their simple story unfolds to give voice to complex ideas about math, love, family and memory. The Housekeeper and the Professor will make you smile, and leave you pondering its meaning long after you have finished it.
This review is from the February 5, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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