Marilynne Robinson wrote exactly one novel during the period covered by the TIME 100, her 1980 book, Housekeeping, which made the list and won several awards for the best debut novel of its year. She wrote one novel shortly after the list’s publication, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, and to date, that’s her entire output of fiction. I suppose that she’s another datum in the argument that less is more.
Housekeeping is a scant story and most of its prose takes place in the narrator’s head; there’s as little dialogue as you’ll see in any book this side of Robinson Crusoe, and there’s very little action in the plot, which sort of jumps along like a tired frog with no particular destination in mind. But its prose itself is brilliant, often beautiful, and manages to be both rich and sparse at the same time, with powerful images used to convey strong emotions, notably those of loneliness, fear, and destiny:
Edith found her boxcar and composed herself in it, while the trainmen went about the jamming and conjoining of cold metal parts. In such weather one steps on fossils. The snow is too slight to conceal the ribs and welts, the hollows and sockets of the earth, fixed in its last extreme. But in the mountains, the earth is most unceremoniously buried, with all its relics, against its next rising, in hillock and tumulus.
The story itself revolves around two sisters, Ruth (the narrator) and Lucille, who are orphaned as young children and then live with their maternal grandmother, then two eccentric great-aunts, then finally their mother’s sister, Sylvie, a lifelong transient who engages in various small tasks (such as hoarding empty tin cans and magazines) because that, in her mind, is how one keeps house. The book is almost completely devoid of male characters; their grandfather dies in the book’s first few pages, their father is completely absent, and only one man speaks any words at all, and those only briefly in the story’s last three chapters to bring the plot to its climax.
Ruth and Lucille both react differently to life with Sylvie in the rural town of Fingerbone; Lucille eventually craves stability and seeks it out in conformity, while Ruth (apparently taking after her mother as well as her aunt) is complacent to live a quiet, solitary, sad life without the trappings of society that might serve to pin her in one place. Lucille shouts at the dinner table one night, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to leave this place! â€¦ I think I’ll go to Boston,” and when asked why Boston, she replies, “Because it isn’t Fingerbone, that’s why!” (The passage seems like it might have inspired Augustana’s song about the city I call home.) Yet in the end, it’s Sylvie and Ruth who leave Fingerbone first, and Lucille stays behind to pursue her unknown destiny.
It’s odd to find a novel with this kind of depth and thematic complexity despite having just three major characters, little dialogue, two settings, and almost no action until the book’s final stages. It’s a remarkable feat of language and of thought, and perhaps even more remarkable that I, an avowed plot-first reader, enjoyed and even appreciated the work.