The Housekeeper and the Professor A Novel

Yoko Ogawa




Trade Paperback

192 Pages



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He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem—ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty 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. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities—like the Housekeeper’s shoe size—and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away. 

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.


Praise for The Housekeeper and the Professor

"Yoko Ogawa has published more than 20 books; this is the second to be published in English. The first, The Diving Pool, contained three eerie novellas; critics wondered why she hadn't been translated sooner. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel (a tribute to Stephen Snyder's smooth translation); like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters. The housekeeper is young, with a 10-year-old son who loves baseball. The professor is an aging mathematician whose memory lasts for only 80 minutes before it is erased and he must begin again. He can't remember anything after 1975. He and the boy become friends, and he instills in the boy a love for mathematics. 'It's important to use your intuition,' he tells the housekeeper. 'You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish's fin.' When he tells the boy that the number two is the 'leadoff batter for the infinite team of prime numbers after it,' the boy worries that two will get lonely. 'If it gets lonely,' the professor explains, 'it has lots of company with the other even numbers.' This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami. The three lives connect like the vertices of a triangle."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"Deceptively elegant . . . The Housekeeper and the Professor tells of the adventures, such as they are, of the remarkable virtual family formed by the professor’s new cook and cleaner, the single mother of a 10-year-old boy whom the professor calls Root because his flat head reminds him of the mathematical sign for a square root. Nobody except Root really has a name. Every morning the housekeeper, who narrates the story, has to introduce herself and her son to the professor all over again. He, in turn, as he does whenever he is stuck or flustered or has extended his 80-minute window, is likely to ask her shoe size or her telephone number. He always has something amazing to say about whatever number comes up . . . This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters can lurk currents you don’t see until you are in them. Dive into Yoko Ogawa’s world . . . and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen. What is the problem with all the men in the house­keeper’s life? Who is the woman in the photograph buried under baseball cards in a tin on the professor’s desk? Can the professor love somebody he can’t remember? And, of course: Where do numbers come from? The professor’s answer is that they are already there at the beginning of time, 'in God’s notebook.' This is how he responds when the housekeeper has made a lucky guess about a problem: ‘Good,’ he almost shouted, shaking the leather strap of his watch. I didn’t know what to say. ‘It’s important to use your intuition. You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin’ . . . If we all had learned math from such a teacher we would all be a lot smarter."—Dennis Overbye, The New York Times Book Review

“Strangely charming, flecked with enough wit and mystery to keep us engaged throughout. This is Ogawa’s first novel to be translated into English, and Stephen Snyder has done an exceptionally elegant job.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Ogawa’s charming fable presents a stark contrast to the creepy novellas collected last year in ‘The Diving Pool,’ but her strength as an engaging writer remains.”—Vikas Turahkia, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Lovely . . . Ogawa’s plot twists, her narrative pacing, her use of numbers to give meaning and mystery to life are as elegant in their way as the math principles the professor cites . . . Ogawa’s short novel is itself an equation concerning the intricate and intimate way we connect with others—and the lace of memory they sometimes leave us.”—Anthony Bukoski, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Fluttering among the pages of this novel will reveal a forbidding number of algebraic equations sprinkled through the dialogue. Don't put the book down. Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor is a richly emotional experience—yes, a plunge into advanced mathematics and Japanese baseball, but so human, filled with so many telling, brilliant touches, that the math parts border on poetry and the baseball parts become a language of love between an old man and a boy who both adore the same team. Here's a slender, newly-translated Japanese novel about three utterly likeable human beings, doing what human beings do best: gently exploring each other and helping each other to find happiness. Essentially we're talking a cast of three: a 28-year-old housekeeper and single parent who's telling the story, her 10-year-old son who's never known a father and has never seen a live baseball game, and a genius mathematics professor who has suffered a car accident and whose memory is damaged—and lasts only for 80 minutes. Little notes are pinned all over the Professor's jacket reminding him of important facts and dates. Every morning he wakes up disoriented and alone. Like the housekeeper, the reader is captivated by the unexpected lyrical philosophy behind numbers. 'In mathematics,' says the Professor, 'the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows.' Beyond the mysteries of perfect numbers are the mysteries of the Professor. Why is he so worried when he finds out the housekeeper's son has been left home alone after school, concerned enough to insist that the boy come to his house every afternoon from now on? Why does the Professor become an emotional wreck when the boy cuts his hand, rushing him on his back to the nearest medical facility? The novel is the young housekeeper's description of the two men in her life, her employer and her son, and the fragile friendship they build around their love of the Tigers baseball team, laced with the thrill of prime numbers and the mathematical search for 'the secrets of the universe, copied out of God's notebook.' Ogawa has the perfect light touch, never milking her dramatic situations, keeping her story realistic and honest. It's all exquisitely touching and impossible to read dry-eyed, an utterly masterful depiction of friendship, a warm-hearted tribute to the unexpected ways that damaged people can change our lives."—Nick DiMartino, Shelf Awareness

"Highly original. Infinitely charming. And ever so touching."—Paul Auster

"From Japanese author Ogawa, the story of a struggling single mother who takes a job looking after an elderly mathematician with an unusual disability. When the Akebono Housekeeping Agency dispatches the unnamed heroine to the shabby cottage occupied by the titular academic, there is little reason to think she would last any longer than the previous nine women who briefly worked there. He's clearly not the average client. Seventeen years earlier the professor was in a devastating car accident that left him brain damaged, only able to remember 80 minutes at a time. He gets through the day solving math problems, and attaches notes to his clothes to remember what he needs to do. His memories prior to the accident, however, remain crystal clear, and he survives off the generosity of his widowed sister-in-law, on whose property he lives. Initially he's not much of a talker, but the sweet, almost childlike housekeeper takes a liking to the vulnerable old man, even as she has to reintroduce herself to him every day. He teaches her about the elegance and order of numbers—his passion—while she dotes on him like a daughter. Through his lessons she sees the unexpected poetry in math and sets about solving some problems of her own. She also introduces him to her ten-year-old son, who he nicknames 'Root' because the flat top of his head reminds him of the square-root sign. The professor instantly bonds with the fatherless boy, so she and Root spend more and more time at the professor's home. The trio begins to resemble a family, with an unspoken understanding of each other that transcends language and convention. Trouble calls, though, when the sister-in-law, who has her own complicated history with the professor, misinterprets the housekeeper's kindness as something more devious. Ogawa's disarming exploration of an eccentric relationship reads like a fable, one that deftly balances whimsy with heartache. Simple story, well told."—Kirkus Reviews

"Ogawa weaves a poignant tale of beauty, heart and sorrow in her exquisite new novel. Narrated by the Housekeeper, the characters are known only as the Professor and Root, the Housekeeper's 10-year-old son, nicknamed by the Professor because the shape of his hair and head remind the Professor of the square root symbol. A brilliant mathematician, the Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and his short-term memory only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his theorems and favorite baseball players, but the Housekeeper must reintroduce herself every morning, sometimes several times a day. The Professor, who adores Root, is able to connect with the child through baseball, and the Housekeeper learns how to work with him through the memory lapses until they can come together on common ground, at least for 80 minutes. In this gorgeous tale, Ogawa lifts the window shade to allow readers to observe the characters for a short while, then closes the shade. Snyder—who also translated Pool—brings a delicate and precise hand to the translation."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless--too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers--but I don’t know how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond in

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  • Yoko 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.

  • Yoko Ogawa
    Yoko Ogawa




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