Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor is a remarkable story about a brilliant mathematician who has lost his memory and a housekeeper who is a lonely single mother. The professor takes to her and her ten-year-old son right away as they form a friendship that is beneficial for all of them.
A traumatic head injury has left the Professor with only eighty minutes of short-term memory ever since. Even though he can’t hold on to things in his memory for long, he still is very much alive and in thrall to numbers and mathematics, almost quirky in the way he finds relationships between numbers and objects. Of course, nothing stays with him for very long. The only person the Professor is able to retain in his memory from older times is that of his sister-in-law, for some reason - not a good thing since she’s not a fan of his.
The Housekeeper hesitates to take this job when she sees that nine other people were hired but never stayed long. Yet something in her oddly attracts her to the Professor - perhaps his love of her son - so she keeps the job. Every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper meet again and again as if for the first time, a strange and interesting relationship blossoms between them. As she learns more about the Professor and his past, the Housekeeper also discovers more about herself.
Numbers play an important role in the novel because they are so much a part of the Professor's life, the one thing that allows him to go on and gives him some stability and definition, keeping his life in some kind of order. The Housekeeper's son (known as Root because of his flat head) and the Professor find that they share a passionate interest in baseball. The loss of memories every 80 minutes doesn’t inhibit them from becoming great friends. With mathematical terms so much a part of all three lives, it would seem this story might be difficult for some to understand. However, the love of the mathematics and its fascination unites these three so often in the story that it brings the reader right along with them. The Professor’s life may be challenging, but he is able to maintain a quality of life and feelings of well-being due to his reverent love and comprehension of the balance in math.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a moving story, and Ogawa’s smooth prose makes it easy to read and a book that those who love the pure joy of reading will find themselves attracted to. This is reading for the sheer enjoyment of it as one will revel in the words themselves. The story maintains an almost anonymous feel as it represents real people and not just characters in a book. Names are inconsequential because so few characters play within the plot. Feelings intertwine with numbers, and before readers know it, they feel the same fascination with mathematics that the Professor and the Housekeeper come to cherish together as her own interest in numbers draws her to him. One finds that other than math and baseball, the Professor has only one other thing he cares for, and that is children. His relationship and caring for Root is yet another thing that endears him to the Housekeeper.
This is a beautiful story for younger readers as well as adults. The excitement of learning and discovery will amaze the reader in this short, humorous and touching little book, suitable for younger readers as well as adults. By story’s end, you care so much for the characters that they stay with you long after.