Today, she’s considered one of America’s most significant living writers; her latest novel, Home, just won a National Book Award, and Gilead before it took the Pulitzer. But when Marilynne Robinson came out with her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, Robinson was virtually unknown. It didn’t take the literary world long to catch on: New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard hailed it as “a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life.” Broyard, and many readers after him, have marveled at Robinson’s almost mystical ability to transform the world with her words. As his landmark review put it, “It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration.”
Many Santa Barbarans have become more familiar with Robinson’s earlier work over the course of the past month, since Housekeeping was selected as the Santa Barbara Reads book this season. The novel tells the story of Ruth and her younger sister Lucille, who, in the wake of their mother’s suicide, are raised by their grandmother and then by a series of aunts. These women’s lives unfold in the small town of Fingerbone, Idaho, where the freezing lake-the one their mother drove into to her death, and which claimed their grandfather in a train wreck years before-creeps into everything: filling the basements in springtime, flooding the streets, and pooling even in their dreams. Ultimately, the girls must choose between a conventional life in the community or the raw freedom of transience.
Speaking about the book’s selection a couple of months ago, the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Chris Gallery discussed its themes and gushed about Robinson’s writing, saying, “You sink into it. There’s no fast-paced storyline; you read it at a slow pace, because it’s just gorgeous.”
Robinson declined a telephone interview and at the time of printing had not responded to questions sent via email, but there were many others eager to share their thoughts on her writing. Among Robinson’s many fans is Pico Iyer, the sometime Santa Barbaran and internationally recognized journalist, essayist, and novelist. In a recent email, Iyer told me, “I literally leaped for joy and started gibbering like a fool when I saw, in Chaucer’s in late August, that Santa Barbara had chosen Housekeeping as its Santa Barbara Reads book for this year. It struck me as one of the most inspired, as well as one of the most unexpected, choices imaginable, and one that takes us right back to those places of magic and transport that writing can reach that no other medium can begin to touch.”
Iyer sees Housekeeping as following in the tradition of Whitman and Kerouac-a classic Western novel that celebrates the vagabond spirit-but from a feminine perspective. But to Iyer, Housekeeping is much more than a feminist take on a great American literary tradition; it’s a defining work among the novels of the 20th century.
“A great book is always a unique book,” Iyer wrote, “which no one else could have written, and which instantly constructs a room in the House of Letters that no one had even dreamed of before. When I reread Housekeeping, I came to feel that it was among the handful of great American novels of the last century, and, perhaps, stranger and more unlike anything else than any of the other candidates. The musty diction, the way the house and the lake almost become one as wilderness and our frail communities dissolve into one another; the way she makes light and air and water itself her protagonists and paints a landscape in which every life is being blown hither and thither-all of this constitutes not just a book but an entire vision.”
But you don’t have to take his word for it. Whether, like Iyer, you’re a Robinson devotee or you’re yet to be initiated, this is a rare opportunity to hear a writer of her stature read and answer questions.
On Friday, October 24, at 7:30 p.m., Robinson will give a free lecture at the Victoria Hall Theater, cosponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures and the Santa Barbara Public Library. And on Sunday, October 26, at 2 p.m., Santa Barbara Reads comes to a close with a screening of the 1987 film of Housekeeping at the library’s Central Branch. For more on the talk, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu. For more on the screening, call 962-7653 or visit sbplibrary.org.