Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The genre for September's book club, foreign translation, intimidated me a bit. I love choosing each months' book, so I approached choosing a foreign language book translated into English just like I usually do. I'm trying to stay away from depressing, sad, violent, negative and romantically sappy books. Yes, I realize those moods make for a compelling read, but between stress at work, the crazy world we live in, and trying to heal my broken heart...I need to read happy stuff these days. I was drawn to this book for three reasons: the first bunch of reviews I read all said it was "sweet", it was short, and it was on the shelf at the library.

So, was it "sweet"?

September 2013: Foreign Translation

The Housekeeper and the Professor
By Yoko Ogawa
2003
180 pages

Originally written in Japanese, author Yoko Ogawa sets her sweet story in 1990's Japan. The story is narrated by the Housekeeper, who has just started a new job cleaning house and cooking for the Professor, a retired mathematical genius. The tricky part is the Professor can only remember the last 80 minutes. It was interesting to read how the Professor manages his life with such a short memory,  as well as how the Housekeeper, and her son "Root" who befriends the old man, help him with this vast task.

This sweet book is simply about three things: math, baseball, and family.

I love baseball, so it was fun to read about Japanese baseball through the conversations between Root and the Professor while they listen to games on the radio. I don't really love math, however, but Ogawa did an excellent job of weaving mathematics within the story. Usually the Professor teaches his new friends a concept, but as the book goes on, the Housekeeper begins to describe what math has come to mean to her, and Root begins to use math to understand baseball. Though I didn't always bother to read into or understand the math, the author skillfully uses numbers in such a way that if you don't understand the concept, it doesn't detract from the story.

Ogawa does a great job of weaving the characters' love of math, baseball and each other into a sweet story about a very unlikely, yet strong, family bond. It was not depressing or sad (if a bit bittersweet at the end) or violent or negative and (*SPOILER*) thank goodness the Housekeeper and the Professor didn't fall in love. It was just very...sweet.

Could I tell I was reading a translation? I'm not sure, I don't think I've ever (knowingly) read a translated book. At times, the prose was extremely beautiful and almost lyrical. But at times it was also quite simplistic and flat. Was this because of the translator's skill or the author's writing ability? Who knows? I didn't think the translation detracted from the story though, and thought the translator did a great job describing the math.

In the end I got what I wanted: an unintimidating book that was short and sweet. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a sweet love story that's not about romance. Or someone who likes baseball. And don't be intimidated by the math, just think of it as part of the beauty.

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