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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Ogawa Yoko

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To purchase The Housekeeper and the Professor

Title: The Housekeeper and the Professor
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 180 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Housekeeper and the Professor - US
The Housekeeper and the Professor - UK
The Housekeeper and the Professor - Canada
The Housekeeper and the Professor - India
La formule préférée du professeur - France
Das Geheimnis der Eulerschen Formel - Deutschland
La formula del professore - Italia
La fórmula preferida del profesor - España
  • Japanese title: 博士の愛した数式
  • Translated by Stephen Snyder
  • 博士の愛した数式 was made into a film in 2006

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fairly charming novel of an unusual substitute-family

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 2/5/2009 Steven Poole
The LA Times . 25/1/2009 Susan Salter Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/3/2009 Dennis Overbye
San Francisco Chronicle . 15/3/2009 Joan Frank
The Spectator . 3/6/2009 Charles Cumming
TLS . 24/4/2009 Jess Chandler
The Washington Post . 15/2/2009 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book as a whole is an exercise in delicate understatement, of the careful arrangement of featherlight materials into a surprisingly strong structure. The pure mountain air of number theory blows gently through all its pages" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel (a tribute to Stephen Snyder's smooth translation); like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(D)eceptively elegant (.....) This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it 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. Dive into Yoko Ogawa’s world (she is the author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction) and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen." - Dennis Overbye, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Even math-phobes -- I'm one -- will be moved and intrigued by Ogawa's delicate explorations. (...) Ogawa's account is precise, modest yet dignified, whether she is describing meals prepared (her food sounds terrific), wind blowing cherry blossoms around, or the serenity of prime numbers." - Joan Frank, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As somebody who also felt ill at the sight of a maths text book at school, I didn’t quite share the housekeeper’s enthusiasm for her new subject. There are also severe narrative drawbacks in placing a character with anterograde amnesia at the centre of a story. But Ogawa largely overcomes these through the clarity of her prose and the originality of her approach." - Charles Cumming, The Spectator

  • "The novel suffers from a lack of trust in itself, and from its insistence on over-emphasis, refusing the subtlety it requires. (...) The aesthetic qualities of mathematics are convincingly explored in Ogawa's simple story. But there is, throughout, the sense that she is attempting something which she fears may be impossible (...) Ogawa's ambition is greater than her narrative allows" - Jess Chandler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This is a delicate, unhurried story about the friendship that develops between a brain-injured mathematician and a woman who comes every day to prepare his meals. None of the characters is ever named. Nothing romantic or even dramatic ever happens. And there is a lot of conversation about math. Can you hear the marketing team in New York starting to cry ? And yet The Housekeeper and the Professor is strangely charming, flecked with enough wit and mystery to keep us engaged throughout." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The unnamed woman who narrates The Housekeeper and the Professor grew up without her father, just as her son grows up without his. Without much education and not really equipped for any other work but well-practised in this -- "I kept house for my mother from the time I was a small child" -- she became a housekeeper.
       The novel describes one particular job she had, which she started when her son was ten. It is an unusual position, and she already has her concerns when the agency assigns her to it, since she can see that that household has already gone through a lot of housekeepers -- always a bad sign. But what she finds is unlike anything she might have expected: she is to work for a professor of mathematics who was in a car accident almost two decades earlier and whose memory stops at that point, in 1975; his short-term memory has been reduced to exactly eighty minutes, meaning he can't remember anything for longer than that. So it is pointless of the housekeeper to really introduce herself, since every day when she shows up for work she is again a stranger to the Professor.
       The Professor has come up with a few strategies for dealing with his problem, including pinning all sorts of notes to his suit to remind himself of things that he would otherwise forget. He was once a great mathematician, and that continues to be his passion -- and something he can fall back on. He relates to the housekeeper through numbers and maths -- his opening question is to ask her shoe size and telephone number, pleased to note that, for example, the phone number is: "the total number of primes between one and one hundred million" --, as it is the one area where he feels safe and comfortable in.
       When the Professor learns that the housekeeper has a ten-year-old son he insists the boy shouldn't be a latchkey kid but rather should be with his mother. When she does have her son come over the Professor is very pleased, immediately taking to the boy, whom he dubs 'Root' -- "The square root sign is a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers". (The names of the characters in the book are never mentioned, though the narrator then refers to her son as Root throughout.)
       The Professor's condition makes for many complications, but it's touching to see how they adapt to it. The Professor's genuine liking for the young boy pleases the mother, and the boy even gets terribly upset at one point when she does not seem to trust the old man enough. A shared love of baseball (with all its statistics) makes for an additional connexion, though it's complicated by the fact that the Professor's favourite pitcher retired long ago, while he, stuck in 1975, still expects him to be the much-relied upon ace of the squad.
       The adaptable child and the Professor with his limitations get along particularly well, treating each other very naturally. The housekeeper, meanwhile, has to work harder to keep things going smoothly, but she too finds comfort in this odd relationship that develops. The Professor's mathematical enthusiasm is unstoppable, but he's also a good teacher, and he's able to convey a lot of the wonder of numbers to both mother and son. (The mathematical focus is on number theory, which is relatively accessible; there's lots of maths here, but few complicated formulas.) Even the housekeeper gets caught up in it, to the extent that: "when I encountered a large number that I suspected might be prime, I had to divide it to be sure".
       The sister-in-law who hired the housekeeper wants no contact whatsoever with her; she lives on the same property, but makes clear from the beginning that: "I would prefer you resolve any difficulties without consulting me". For the most part the housekeeper does that, and the way the sister-in-law keeps her distance stands in stark contrast to the substitute-family that grows around the professor; as the housekeeper ultimately learns, however, there's a bit more to it.
       The Housekeeper and the Professor is a fairly charming, fairly simple story that is very nicely told. The mix of mathematics and domestic life is appealing and well done, and in describing a household of such mutual support Ogawa paints a touching picture. Ogawa also does well in not making it entirely idyllic.
       A fine little entertainment.

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The Housekeeper and the Professor: Reviews: 博士の愛した数式 - the film: Other books by Ogawa Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ogawa Yoko (小川 洋子) was born in 1962.

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