Did you know that numbers can be calming, intriguing and unifying; a means with which to connect three novel characters statistically unlikely to become a unit? I didn’t. Nor did I know how entertaining mathematical story problems could be. After reading a compelling review about a book I had not heard of, and knowing I would be spending a good deal of time in the car, I ordered the audio version, and have since enjoyed listening to “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa.
In this sweetly rendered story, a professor of math, an insightful housekeeper, and her ten year-old son spend their days together, introducing themselves anew each morning, and eventually becoming a unique family of sorts in the process. They do this amid conversations about prime numbers, the properties of zero – and Japanese baseball stars.
Ogawa’s novel is about a mathematical genius whose short-term memory is 80 minutes. He suffers from irreversible brain damage from a long ago a car accident. While he retains his mathematical gifts, his days begin getting re-aquainted with his housekeeper, always asking her what her birth date and her shoe size are. Perfect numbers connect them in time, no matter what he has forgotten about their last 80 minutes together.
The housekeeper is a sensitive and astute unwed mother trying to eke out a living while raising her son, who is named Root by the professor (because his hair resembles the square root sign) Root is the only character with a name in the book. In the course of the story, the professor insists that Root comes to his cottage after school each day rather than return home to an empty house. The professor recollects who Root is with the help of one of the many stickers, penned with pertinent details of his daily life. He wears the stickers, some faded with age, pinned to his suit. Root’s mother, the housekeeper, is the story’s narrator.
As Ogawa’s story entranced me, I found myself taking the longer way home or sitting in the grocer’s parking lot five minutes longer. My car idled in our drive as prime numbers and equations came to life and I found myself wishing the professor had been my Algebra teacher as he gently engaged Root in the art of baseball statistics and encouraged the housekeeper to dig a bit deeper in thought by helping Root with problem solving and in understanding how the answers to problems are reached.
I cannot remember reading a more engaging book, simply told, about numbers and relationships. While I experienced “The Housekeeper and the Professor” on audio, it is a book that revealed itself to be one that I want to hold in my hand and experience through the words on a page. I will read it again, with my eyes instead of my ears. It is just the sort of book that stays with the reader long after the ending has come.
I should also add that “The Housekeeper and the Professor” is one of those books that was masterfully translated from Japanese into English. It is one of those stories so beautifully told that it’s essence has stayed with me long after the words ended and one in which I found myself longing to share with you, dear reader.
This would also be an intriguing book for discussion.