Summary: He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only 80 minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him. And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.
“A problem isn’t finished just because you’ve found the right answer.”
I read this story when I took a class in Japanese Literature, and I absolutely love it. Don’t be intimated by the math. It’s a perfect lazy Sunday morning read that is not just enjoyable but has meaningful take-away. A movie from this novel called was made in 2006 but sadly I couldn’t find the trailer :<
The Professor and Mathematics
“Why would I need to read a novel about math,” is my first thought before I opened the book. But I was wrong. Yoko Ogawa knows how to hook the readers right away within the first few pages: the quirky professor with an 80-minute short-term memory is such a fascinating character that makes me want to know more about him. He read things backwards easily and knows all the statistics of baseball without watching a game. He is extremely smart, and he challenges the housekeeper, the main female character, and her son with math problems. He shows them (and me too) the beauty of numbers, something so beautiful and ordered by itself that only God could possibly create.
“He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one.”
To him, children are comparable to prime numbers, he can love children as passionate as he loves math for no reason. That’s why he names the housekeeper’s son Root and loves him so dearly. But how can he take care of Root while his memory only lasts 80 minutes? Would his love for children be enough for the housekeeper to let him take care of Root? Would their memories just fade away when the sun rises the next day?
“The note clipped to his sleeve simply informed him that it was not our first meeting, but it could not bring back the memory of the time we had spent together.”
The story is embedded with empowering messages, especially for women. The main female character, our dear housekeeper, was born into a broken family yet learned to support herself at a very young age. She refuses to go back to a man who leaves her when she was pregnant and makes a new family (with the professor) by choice regardless whether they are bonded by blood or not. Ogawa’s message about family here speaks volume: the conventional family structure is not always necessary. With love, one can be part of a family he or she chooses.
[SPOILER ALERT] But familial love alone is not enough, as the housekeeper has been warned: “my brother-in-law can never remember you, but he can never forget me.” Any attempt to form a relationship with the professor would be futile as his memory stops in 1975. Despite this warning, their familial bond continues to develop despite the professor’s memory loss because Root and his mother continue to visit him in the hospital. In the beginning, I thought that the professor’s memory loss would be a lesson about just enjoying the moment because everything will be fine the next day. But in fact, the message here is much more moving and impactful. The housekeeper and her son stick to the professor through thick and thin, take him to the baseball game and give him an Enatsu’s card as a present. I guess unconsciously, the professor never forgets that. Love and effort can make the impossible possible: the professor whose life basically cannot move on since 1975 now becomes a family with Root and his mother.
Hope you enjoy! xD