The Prodigal Housekeeper is perhaps the most surprising book I’ve read in a long time. It’s not a suspense novel, adventure story, or crime thriller, but don’t let the title fool you—neither is it about a servant. It’s about a “prodigal” woman, Caroline, and she’s a prodigal in every sense of the word. She does not abide by a moral code but simply uses men by marrying them and then divorcing them to get what she wants. Nor does she see anything wrong with her behavior. She is simply amoral, and I found her a fascinating character who experiences fascinating repercussions for her behavior because they are not at all what the reader would expect.
The novel begins in England with Caroline’s marriage to the well-off Oswald, a man some 20-plus years older than her who drives expensive cars and has a beautiful house. On their wedding day, Caroline informs Oswald of her reasons for marrying him and what she wants from him—even the most hardened reader will be surprised by her words—and Oswald’s words in response. Oswald already knows that he always falls for the wrong kind of woman, stating, “I always fall for the same type of woman, usually one who gets me into trouble. I am not attracted to the sensible type who wake up at six o’clock and then start to bake bread.”
So this time, Oswald has decided to be wiser; he has been attuned to Caroline’s tricks for a while and is prepared for her demands. The interesting battle of wills and Caroline’s amoral tendencies soon take the characters on a journey neither could ever predict that includes a trip to Indonesia, mystical experiences, and an unexpected secret from the past.
One aspect of the novel that might make a few readers quibble is that the supernatural or mystical events are not fully explained, but I found how they were presented to be realistic and the author, Don Michael, intentionally left them as mysterious. Michael realizes that not everything needs to be explained, and some aspects of our lives are better left unexplained. At the same time, the characters come to realize that many of their actions, which even they do not understand, have reasons and meaning behind them—and on some metaphysical level, they are searching for something they do not even realize they seek. In addition, the book makes passing references to reincarnation, the power of the mind, and soul groups without ever going overboard; it simply leaves the mystery of life as just that—a mystery—while still bringing the novel to a very satisfying conclusion.
Don Michael writes in a simple, smooth style that I found to be relaxing and soothing. It is simple in the sense that Michael’s efforts to be concise make his writing style look easy, although as an author myself, I know it is not simple. Furthermore, he has the distance not to be overly emotionally involved in his characters, although he is obviously fond of them; he steps back and always sees the bigger picture his characters are grasping to see.
The peacefulness that permeates this book is rare to find in modern literature, and it is difficult to describe. It is like reading Evelyn Waugh, with his twists and irony in A Handful of Dust, but without the angst and still a touch of his humor. It also reminds me of the metaphysical grace of Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his very best book Zanoni. And while the story lacks the outlandishness of Voltaire’s Candide, it retains that sense that we live in the best of all possible worlds. As one of the characters says toward the end of The Prodigal Housekeeper, “I don’t think any of us have really achieved goodness; we are learning to be who we really are, and we all have some past actions that were bad. Life,” he goes one, “involves taking a few risks and making a few mistakes now and again; it is a struggle and we must keep struggling. You are doing just fine.” Despite what the characters endure, in the end, all is right with the world.
I have found, now a couple of weeks after first reading The Prodigal Housekeeper, that the book’s characters and its message have remained with me, giving me much to mull over since I finished it. Don Michael is a British novelist, but his themes are of universal interest. Books like this one can make their readers more thoughtful and in tune with themselves. I would like to read more of this author’s work.
For more information about Don Michael and The Prodigal Housekeeper, visit the book’s website.