The Housekeeper and the Professor is a Wholesome Love Letter to Math
I’ve always loved math. I enjoyed the predictability of numbers, and I loved the challenge of finding meaning in those elusive alphabets and even in those strange Greek symbols.
Math problems had the capability to distract me completely from my problems, and I was able to concentrate on numbers and logic like nothing else.
Although most of my favourite parts of math (algebra, calculus…) are far away now – psychology has nothing in common with math, except the statistics we all use in research – I still enjoy the occasional Sudoku.
I think it was precisely because my life is so far removed from math now that I enjoyed The Housekeeper and The Professor so much. It was a wholesome dose of nostalgia that took me back to my tryst with numbers.
He is a mathematical genius – a former professor. A little absentmindedness is okay for a genius…it comes with the territory. But this Professor’s problem runs deeper than merely being scatter-brained. He has a neurological problem – his memory only lasts eighty minutes.
She is a caring, empathetic housekeeper and a single mother. After a string of housekeepers have come and gone from the Professor’s place, she is determined to be the one that stays.
The job is difficult, but slowly, a beautiful relationship begins to form between the Housekeeper and the Professor. As she and her son slowly develop a curiosity and interest in the beautiful equations he talks of, these three souls form a bond that runs deeper than memory.
While reading this book, I once again fell in love with math.
As I rediscovered the beauty of prime numbers; the fascinating history of Fermat’s last theorem; the poetic little names for special numbers…I found that I hadn’t forgotten my love for numbers after all.
Every pretty metaphor the narrator used; every new fact she found; every time she triumphed over numbers…I realised why I fell in love with math in the first place.
The simple prose, which became poetic and lyrical only when talking of numbers, made me feel at home.
The story itself wasn’t quite so satisfactory. It went along quite nicely until the end, but the ending itself left me feeling bereft and incomplete. The lack of closure (for the story seemed to lead nowhere) left me wondering if I’d gotten an incomplete edition.
But none of that takes away from the utterly warm experience of reading the book. It was a hug I sorely needed after the heartbreak I felt on reading The Mountains Sing, perfect for this not-great period in all our lives.
Would I recommend this book? YES! Even if you don’t like math.
Because it’s about math, yes, but it’s also about love and family and relationships. You’ll love the simple but elegant prose and the lyrical description of mathematical concepts. You might even develop a grudging respect for the oft-hated subject, thinking, “If only I’d had a wonderful teacher like the Professor, maybe I’d have fallen in love with math, too!”
About the Author
Yoko Ogawa was born in Okayama, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo with her husband and son. She is a prolific author, having published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction since 1988.
In 2006, she co-authored a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers, “An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics”, with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician.
The tone of her works varies, but usually, she writes about female protagonists and their observations and feelings, often reflecting Japanese society and women’s roles within it. She has written across genres, her works including surreal, grotesque, humorous, psychologically ambiguous, and even disturbing books.
About the translator
Stephen Snyder is a Japanese translator and professor or Japanese Studies at Middlebury College. He lived in Japan for several years as a child but only learnt Japanese much later, while finishing a Masters in English Literature at Columbia University. Since then, he has lived in Japan for a total of about six years.
He has translated works by Yoko Ogawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, and Miri Yu, among others. His translation of Natsuo Kirino’s “Out” was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 2004, and that of Yoko Ogawa’s “Hotel Iris” was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.