This is a beautiful little book that was an absolute joy to read. The unnamed narrator, a 28-year-old housekeeper and mother of a 10-year-old son, is sent to work for an unkempt retired math professor who lives in a cottage behind his sister-in-law’s house. The Professor is disabled—in 1975 he had a terrible accident that impacted his short-term memory, which only lasts 80 minutes. He still believes it is 1975 and not 2003. He’s taciturn and a bit difficult to work for, but the housekeeper feels sorry for him. The Professor cuts a pathetic figure—a small old man in a worn suit and moldy shoes, little slips of paper with messages to himself clipped to lapels and pockets. The most prominent note reads “my memory only lasts eighty minutes.”
Every morning, the Professor does not know who the Housekeeper is, and asks her a question relating to numbers—what is her birthday, her phone number, her shoe size? He finds meaning in all of her answers. The Housekeeper, a high school dropout, starts trying to learn more about mathematics in order to connect with him. But the equation of the housekeeper + the professor is missing a factor of the equation: the housekeeper’s son.
When the Professor learns that the Housekeeper has been leaving her son home alone, he is distraught and demands that he comes to the house after school. He writes himself a note to make himself remember. And when the boy comes, the Professor greets him warmly, even though he has no idea who he is. He nicknames the boy Root.
An unlikely family arises out of this. Even though the Professor has no idea how long he has known them, he cares for them. The language of mathematics overcomes the barrier of his memory. They learn about Euler’s forula, Fermat’s Last Theorem, prime numbers and amicable numbers. I have a rather limited grasp of mathematics, but it’s laid out more like poetry and I understood it all. It’s a gorgeously written book, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Yoko Ogawa has won many prestigious awards in Japan. The Housekeeper + The Professor has won the Hon’ya Taisho award, became a bestseller, and was adapted to film (The Professor’s Beloved Equation), which I plan to watch soon, if I can find it.