The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

January 25, 2010 § 38 Comments

“Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.”
~ The Professor

The original Japanese title for this book is 博士の愛した数式, which I think loosely translates into “The Professor’s Beloved Mathematical Equation”. And before The Housekeeper and the Professor was translated and published, there was an earlier edition which was intended to have been named “The Gift of Numbers”.

I think, just those titles alone are enough to tell you, roughly, what this book might be about. But there’s more to the book than just math.

In March 1992, a housekeeper is assigned to care for a man, a brilliant math professor. He is sloppy and eccentric, as you would expect most professors to be. But he has one major problem: his memory ‘tape’, as it were, only works up to 1975. And for whatever else that happened after that, his memory only spans 80 minutes.

It’s a difficult relationship to sustain, it would seem, especially when there’s a need for the housekeeper to constantly reintroduce herself to the professor. How do you make friends with someone who can never remember what happened yesterday?

And what about the professor himself? How does he live, knowing that whatever memories he has, are from many years ago? How painful is it for him to realise that what he feels only happened yesterday, must have happened so long before? And it must be awful to have someone describe something that happened yesterday, but have no memory of it himself.

In fact, is it even odd that the professor might feel so uncomfortable going out of his house? His memories are those from almost 20 years ago. Everything would be so unfamiliar, and yet he cannot ever remember how it all changed.

The most beautiful part of the book, I feel, is the relationship that happens almost so naturally between the housekeeper’s 10-year-old son, nicknamed Root, and the professor. With each passing day, even though the professor meets Root like as if for the first time, his affection for the boy is always so genuine, so heartfelt. Even without a lasting memory, it felt like the professor had an attachment for Root that was just so real.

It was actually precisely because the professor treated Root so kindly and with so much love, in spite of not remembering him in any way, that filled my heart up.


I don’t think I can do this book justice, really. The writing was just beautiful, and the way the professor talks about math in this book just makes it feel like magic.

“In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.”
~ The Professor

It’s a book not just about math, or about the professor’s love of math. It’s also about the relationships between people. About how people are drawn together. About the fact that the here and the now is as important, if not perhaps more, than what has already past.

And yet, the room was filled by a kind of stillness. Not simply an absence of noise, but an accumulation of layers of silence, untouched by fallen hair or mold, silence that the Professor left behind as he wandered through the numbers, silence like a clear lake hidden in the depths of the forest.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a very quiet, very subtle book. At the same time, it’s a page-turner, a book you just don’t want to put down. How often do you come across books like this?

Rating: 5

For: Japanese Literature Challenge 3, Japanese Literature Book Group with Tanabata.


Note: I wish more of Ogawa’s works were being translated into English, or being published as books. Pregnancy Calendar (translated as Pregnancy Diary) won the Akutagawa Prize in 1990, and can be read online HERE. I’m just curious why it isn’t published in book form, like so many other works that won this award.

§ 38 Responses to The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

  • nymeth says:

    I did you did do it justice, Michelle. I’m absolutely dying to read it. Those passages you shared are so beautiful. And it sounds like such a subtle, moving, wonderful book – everything I love, really.

  • kiss a cloud says:

    Could anyone NOT love this book? I’m glad we’re on the same page.
    I was also moved by the way the professor cared about Root. He filled Root’s father’s shoes without even knowing it. The professor was so endearing, wasn’t he? I wanted to hug him..

    • Michelle says:

      I think it’s quite impossible to not love this book. Or at least, I haven’t come across any negative reviews of it.

      I absolutely loved the professor. It was so painful to read when his condition started to deteriorate..

  • savidgereads says:

    Oh Michelle I am sooooo desperate to read this, I have heard a wonderful rumour that it might be arriving through my doors within the next couple of days and I am sooo much more excited after this review. It seems to very much be a book of the moment this one.

  • Vishy says:

    Thanks for the review Michelle! The book looks really beautiful! And I love the cover with the cherry blossoms 🙂 Mathematics is such a beautiful subject. Unfortunately it is intimidating too at school. I will look for this book when I go to the bookshop. If you like experiencing the beauty of mathematics I can suggest a book called ‘It must be beautiful : Great Equations of Modern Science’ (edited by Graham Farmelo) which has essays of famous equations described beautifully for normal readers.

    • Michelle says:

      It seems you always have suggestions for further reading! =) I’m glad, so I’m putting this down on my list of books to look for. I’ve got too many as it is…

      The cover is just lovely, isn’t’ it? The book itself as a physical thing is beautiful.

  • Tiina says:

    Great review & I wholeheartily agree with everything you said. I read The Housekeeper and the Professor last year & liked it very much. Both Professor’s love of math and his affection for Root are so beautifully described in the book.


  • Think your review was fantastic, as I’ve just added it to my wishlist. Have to admit, hadn’t really heard of this book before, but am really looking forward to it.

    • Michelle says:

      I don’t think it’s going to be the last you’ll hear of this book. There’s a book group going on, so it could be that there will be a sudden influx. =p But the book is awesome.

  • mee says:

    Like I said to Claire, I just found the book on Friday at my fave bookstore for $4.95! I’m really happy that it has got raving reviews. I won’t be able to join the book group, but I’ll be sure to read it, hopefully this year.

    • Michelle says:

      I did see that comment! And honestly, I wish I owned the book, instead of now needing to return it to the library. There are just some books you wish you could keep forever.

  • mee says:

    Oh the Pregnancy Diary is only 8 pages long, so I don’t think people would publish it in book form, unless to be included in short story collection or anthology. Thanks for the link. I’m thinking to print it out and read while commuting ;). I thought Akutagawa award was only for novels, apparently the winners are mostly novellas and short stories (according to wiki).

    • Michelle says:

      Yea, that was what I was thinking as well… Maybe someone somewhere will decide to pull some of the short stories that won the Akutagawa Prize together into an anthology. That would be so awesome.

  • Susan says:

    Michelle, this is a wonderful review. You say that you worry about doing justice to this book–but really, who can, when a book is so touching or beautiful or thoughtful? As book reviewers, we can discuss our thoughts and feelings about books, but readers need to pick up the actual book to experience it’s magic fully.

  • Tony says:

    Sorry to say that my review is not quite as gushing as everyone else’s 😉

  • Jovenus says:

    Hey glad you liked it. I read this last 25 Nov: here’s my review to share:

    I hope I get the chance to read her “Diving Pool” next.
    great review!

    • Michelle says:

      I’ve been wanting to read Diving Pool for a while. In fact, I had wanted to read that book first. But it has just kept on eluding me. I’ve heard that it’s great, so I’m really looking forward to it.

  • farmlanebooks says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this book for ages. Every wonderful review I see makes me more and more jealous! I hope my library gets a copy in soon!

  • Bellezza says:

    I love how this book described family. More than Math, more than Japan, more than baseball, to me it epitomizes what family is. That’s the chord that resonated with me anyway. I’m so looking forward to her new book, Hotel Iris, to be released this April.

    • Michelle says:

      Oh! She has a new book coming out? Awesome. You’re right about the book describing family, Bellezza. There was an abundance of that kind of love just resonating from the book. =)

  • gnoegnoe says:

    What a great review, Michelle! really heartwarming, just like the book 🙂 I wish I could have said it this way 😉

  • Mark David says:

    You all wrote such enticing reviews for this book that I REALLY REALLY wish to find a copy soon! It really does sound like a very very heartwarming story.

    Claire mentioned in her review the movie 50 First Dates, have you seen that movie and did this remind you of that film? 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      I’ve heard of the movie, though I haven’t watched it. But I can see why so many were reminded of the movie, because I think the concept is quite similar. I hope you get yourself a copy of this soon. It’s such a lovely book.

  • By the way, Michelle, the story Pregnancy Diary is included in the collection Diving Pool: Three Novellas. I read it last year and it’s amazing! It’s eerie in a subtle and masterful way 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks for this piece of news. Now I’ll have to hunt that book down. I’ve been wanting to read it for ages already, but somehow I keep forgetting to put it on hold at the library.

  • tanabata says:

    Thanks so much for joining in the discussion, and I’m sorry it took me so long to get back here and comment. I love the quotes that you’ve included here! It really was such a lovely book. Now I’m quite looking forward to reading The Diving Pool, sometime this year hopefully.

  • tanabata says:

    Oops, forgot to mention that I added a comment about Euler’s formula to the discussion post. We watched the movie last weekend so I updated with how it was explained in the film. 🙂

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