The Housekeeper and the Professor—People and Numbers

The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa

Published 2009

Read Feb 2018

It is highly likely that this is the only book this reader has read that was reviewed by a professor of mathematics and that the review was published in a peer-reviewed mathematics journal (Notices of the AMS, Volume 57, number 5 May 2010 pages 635-636). 

Why would a mathematics professor review a book of fiction that was a best-selling novel in Japan before being translated into English and also made into a Japanese film, TV show, a radio show, and a comic book?  The reason is that the main character is a former professor of mathematics who suffered a traumatic brain injury leaving him with an inability to remember anything that has happened longer ago that about 80 minutes and the title’s housekeeper title develops a certain kind of love of numbers through the characters’ association. 

This injury means he had to leave teaching and research and that his current life is fraught with difficulties.  Post-it notes pinned to his clothes help him remind him of essential information.  He lives in a small house on the property of his sister-in-law with whom he has limited interaction.  The sister-in-law hires a housekeeper to come to the professor’s house to clean and cook for him.  The housekeeper has her own life challenges as she is a single (never married) mother with a son of ten.  

The professor’s field of research was number theory and he remains fascinated with numbers and likely relates to them better than with others, especially now that he lives a very solitary life.  Each day the professor and the housekeeper go through a ritual.  He identifies her with a post-it on his clothes but since he doesn’t really remember her, he needs to relearn various numbers about her including shoe size, her age, etc. 

Over time he learns that she has a son to whom she returns only after he has finished his evening meal and she has cleaned up the kitchen.  He insists the boy come to the house after school instead.  The story describes the building of this trio’s relationship which includes the housekeeper and the boy discovering interest in numbers as well.  The other interest they share is baseball.  The professor’s favorite team is the Tigers, which is local, and his favorite player is Enatsu, an actual pitcher for the real Tigers team.  However, he retired in 1984, after the professor’s accident, but 17 years in the past.  The housekeeper and her son take the professor to a baseball game and try hard to keep the retirement of Enatsu a secret so he won’t be disappointed.

Reading the Japanese professor’s review in the math journal was very interesting for this reader.  He could comment on the cultural aspects (the unusualness of both hiring a housekeeper and single motherhood), the believability of the professor and especially his focus on numbers (not typical but not without precedent in this reviewer’s life), and the story of Enatsu.  In addition, this review provided the information at the beginning of this essay regarding the popularity of the book and the various media formats into which it has been adapted.  The reviewer also indicated that the translation into English is good.

This reader very much enjoyed the discussions of numbers and various math theories.  However, it isn’t necessary to know anything about math to enjoy this book.  As the math professor indicates in his review, there is little drama in the book.  However, there often isn’t substantial drama in the lives of many who live rich lives.  The focus of the novel is on the relationship that develops between the professor, the housekeeper, and her son and later includes discussion of the relationship between the professor and his sister-in-law.  

This reader highly recommends this short (192 pages) book that provides a quiet look at the impact unexpected relationships can have on people’s lives. 

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