Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is one of the ten best novels of the past century. In its haunting voice and its inevitable movement, both fabular and precise, it is a nearly perfect work, still as singular and eerie today as when it was published, in 1980. Yet many serious readers have never heard of Housekeeping. Robinson is absent from lists of the living greats. A Nexis search for her name yields only fourteen hits from 2003. Her relative obscurity most likely results from the fact that Housekeeping was for a quarter of a century an only child. Now Robinson has written a second novel. But because it has been so long in coming, it is hard to treat Gilead as simply that.
I avoided Housekeeping for the first few years of its life because I was put off by the title, which to me suggested vacuuming and a middle-aged woman's discontents. (In l980 I was a year out of college. Vacuuming? I felt generations past those old complaints.) But in fact Housekeeping is a story of the end of housekeeping, in the most literal sense of that compound word.
The house in question stands in Fingerbone, a town in the remote Northwest. The novel tells a simple story. A woman borrows a car, drives her two small girls to her mother's house, and then drives herself into a lake. (Her husband appears only in flashback; the children once saw their mother tear an unopened letter from him into four pieces and drop them into the trash, saying, "It's best.") The orphans, Ruth and Lucille, are cared for first by their grandmother, in the house her late husband built, then by their maiden great-aunts from Spokane, who are frightened both of children and of the harsh weather in Fingerbone, and finally by another aunt, Sylvie, an itinerant who had been riding the rails. The right age, their mother's sister, Sylvie is the one the girls set their hearts on, even as they understand that she is, as people used to say, not all there.