Saturday, February 27, 2010

'The Housekeeper and the Professor'

by Yoko Ogawa
First published in Japan in 2003 as 博士の愛した数式 (Hakase no aishita sushiki). Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2009.
Winner of the Yomiuri Prize, 2004.
Harvill Secker (Random House), trade pb, 180 p.
From the back cover:
He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury some seventeen years ago, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

She is a sensitive but astute young housekeeper with a ten-year-old son, who is entrusted to take care of him.

Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. He devises clever maths riddles – based on her shoe size or her birthday – and the numbers, in all their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her little boy. With each new equation, the three lost souls forge an affection more mysterious than imaginary numbers, and a bond that runs deeper than memory.

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 where one did not exist before.
When I first heard about this book, to be honest I wasn’t all that eager to read it. I mean I’m not very mathematical on a good day and other times math and I downright don’t get along. I had a terrible algebra teacher in grade 10 and I like to blame him for instilling in me my dislike of the subject. So many book bloggers were raving about the book though and insisting that you didn’t need to understand, or even like, math to like the book. Plus I’m always willing to at least try a new-to-me Japanese author so I’m glad I had the excuse to read it for the Japanese Literature Book Group last month. Thanks again to everyone who took part in the discussion. And about the not needing to like math part?  They were absolutely right.

It’s true that I’m not completely averse as I have enjoyed some other math-related stories, and this one did remind me of them a bit. Like A Beautiful Mind (I haven’t read the book but saw the movie), the TV show, Numb3rs, or even The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Not only for the obvious math connections but also for the characters in these stories that have a hard time socializing, or relating to others. Like many other Japanese books or movies that I’ve read or seen, The Housekeeper and the Professor is essentially a quiet, human drama where the relationships between the characters are what drive the story. The math is an important element but at its heart is the unlikely bond created between these otherwise different people, despite the obstacle of the professor’s memory. I really enjoyed Ogawa’s subtle touch as she brought these characters vividly to life in a way that moved me. For me, the real achievement of this book though is that it made even me, a completely non-math person, if not fall in love with equations, at least be able to appreciate the beauty of them.
Euler’s formula shone like a shooting star in the night sky, or like a line of poetry carved on the wall of a dark cave. I slipped the Professor’s note into my wallet, strangely moved by the beauty of those few symbols. As I headed down the library stairs, I turned back to look. The mathematics stacks were as silent and empty as ever – apparently no one suspected the riches hidden there. 
Reading the book made me very curious to see the film, The Professor and His Beloved Equation, which was based on the book, and came out in Japan in 2006. According to the Internet Movie Database, it seems to have only been released here and in South Korea. However, much to my delight, the DVD included English subtitles (not the norm, trust me!), so we decided to rent it. My husband had actually seen the movie before on an international flight to somewhere or other, on business, and when I asked him about it he remembered liking it and said he didn’t mind watching it again. He is the complete opposite of me where math and science is concerned though so of course he loved the math aspect, but we both really enjoyed it, me for the first time, him for the second.

The movie follows the book fairly closely. Many of the same scenes were taken straight from the book, although some other notable scenes were altered, or missing entirely, but throughout it maintained the tone of the book. The main difference between the two was that the movie is structured as a flashback. It starts out with the young boy of the story, Root, now an adult, a math teacher, telling his students the story of how he came to love math. The story would sometimes return to Root as an adult, where he would explain some of the math concepts to the class and I thought this was a good way to make the math even more accessible. I thought they also did a good job of casting. The actors fit nicely into the characters as I’d imagined them. Overall, a lovely story in both book and movie form. You can see a trailer of the movie below.

Buy the book at: | | | |

My Rating: 4/5
(#4 for 2010, Japanese Literature Book Group, Japanese Literature Challenge 3)

The Housekeeper and the Professor also reviewed by:
Three Percent
Book Dilettante
The Zen Leaf
Paperback Reader
Rebecca Reads
We Be Reading
kiss a cloud
If you have also posted a review, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print:  I purchased this book for my personal library, and rented the DVD.  Links in this post to Amazon or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. Just to say what a great blog you've got there. I have my review here to share.


  2. Wonderful post and review. Thanks for showing us the YouTube video. You are so lucky to be able to see the movie! Must recommend it to my son who lives in Japan.

    Hope you'll visit my Sunday Salon

  3. Wonderful post! I also wondered at first what all the chatter was about this book. But it is a quiet book that slowly seeps into your soul. Here's what I wrote about it last read:

    I'm so glad you found out that there is a movie based on it! It may never get here, but I'm going to keep my eye out for it! Even though I could not understand the language of the YouTube video, the acting portrayed the empathy I felt while reading. Beautiful music too. Thank you for sharing!

  4. when you mentioned it was a movie I immediately went searching for it. So sad I couldn't find it! It looks so lovely.

  5. I haven't seen this film but so many of my friends have said that's its really wonderful. I didn't realise that it was an adaptation from a book until I read it on your blog! So they are both on my to do list.

  6. Jovenus - Thank you! And thanks for the link, I've added it to the post.

    Harvee - I was very happy to find out that the movie had English subtitles. Whereabouts in Japan does your son live?

    Suzanne - Definitely a quiet but memorable little book. Sorry I couldn't find a trailer online with subtitles but at least if you've read the book you can kind of imagine what's taking place. It's too bad that it hasn't had a wider release.

    Rebecca - The movie was really lovely and kept the same tone as the book. Like I said to Suzanne, it's really too bad it hasn't been released overseas.

    Sakura - I hope you enjoy both the book and the movie, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on them.

  7. I've heard a lot about this book and it is on my TBR list now. I am not a huge fan of math but I love math related stories.


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