Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille; about the grandfather who died with hundreds of other passengers aboard a train that slipped into a lake; about the mother, Helen, who drove her car into that same lake and drowned; about the grandmother who cared for them until she also died; about the befuddled great-aunts who stepped in for a brief time; about Helen's eccentric sister, Sylvie, who eventually takes charge of the girls.
Housekeeping is referenced throughout Housekeeping, both directly and indirectly, literally and figuratively. Robinson has said that her debut novel was initially nothing more than a series of metaphors that she had written. It was only after she gathered them together that she recognized some cohesion that developed into characters and plot. That plot is simple, the characters complex, and the metaphor hold up and is never heavy-handed.
This is a story about "home is where the heart is" and "getting your house in order" and "this world is not my home." This is a story about the ways in which we make ourselves at home; the things said and done and stored up and collected and cast away and destroyed. This is a novel about those who cannot seem to make themselves at home or do not wish to. This is a novel about connections made and broken; about love and loss and loneliness.
There is a passage towards the end of Robinson's novel that is less a concise summation of the plot so much as a clear expression of the theme. It is, perhaps, my favorite passage in a book full of stunning passages. It reads:
Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job's children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory...