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The Housekeeper and the Professor



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About The Author

Yoko OgawaYoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award.

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Reading Group Gold

Discussion Questions

1. The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a

nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her

book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that

important?

2. Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term

memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job,

his friendships, how he takes care of himself)? Discuss some of the creative ways in

which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to

his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.

3. As Root and the Housekeeper grow and move forward in their lives, the Professor stays

in one place (in fact he is deteriorating, moving backwards). And yet, the bond among the

three of them grows strong. How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship

to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations

of our profoundest relationships?

4. The Professor tells the Housekeeper: “Math has proven the existence of God because it is

absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot

prove it.” Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory?

Love?

5. The Houskeeper’s father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the

Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where

all of the families are broken (including the Professor’s), what do you think Ogawa is

saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to

be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it’s made of?

6. Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship

with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and

the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending

ambiguity in that regard?

7. The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the

Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the

Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method

of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole

worldview?

8. Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different

ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.

9. How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the

Professor
? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example,

consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or

perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways

are the cultures similar, different?

10. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in

the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters.

Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for

the characters?

11. Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the

book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic

possibility?

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