Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

Willa Cather is an author I’ve heard a lot about but whose work I’ve never read until now.  I should probably have started with her most famous book, My Antonia, but something drew me to this one, The Professor’s House.

The Professor of the title is Godfrey St Peter, a man in his fifties, around the same age as Willa Cather was when she wrote this novel. At the beginning of the book, St Peter and his wife are preparing to move into their new home.  At the last minute the Professor decides that he doesn’t want to give up his old house just yet, so that he can continue to work in his old study and spend some time alone with his memories.

Most of the book revolves around St Peter reminiscing about his family and friends and coming to terms with the idea of leaving the past behind and embracing modern life.  At the forefront of the Professor’s thoughts is his former student Tom Outland, who had once been engaged to his daughter Rosamond. On his death in the First World War, Outland left everything he had to Rosamond – and this inheritance is causing trouble for the St Peter family.

If you prefer books with a gripping plot and lots of action you’ll want to avoid this one, as it was one of the slowest moving books I’ve ever read. I have to admit there were a few times during the first few chapters that I came close to abandoning it, but I kept reading because it was so well written. I would describe this as a calm, quiet, reflective book; one with such powerful, eloquent writing and beautiful imagery that it doesn’t really matter that not much actually happens.

The book is divided into three sections; the first and third are essentially character studies of the Professor and his family, particular his two daughters Rosamond and Kathleen and their husbands. The middle section is very different in both style and subject, as it tells in a flashback the story of Tom Outland’s life in New Mexico before he met the St Peter family. This story-within-a-story was fascinating but did feel slightly out of place, almost as if it had just been dropped at random into the middle of an entirely different book.

One of the things that stood out about Cather’s writing for me was the use of colour in her descriptions.

The grey sage-brush and the blue-grey rock around me were already in shadow, but high above me the canyon walls were dyed flame-coloured with the sunset, and the Cliff City lay in a gold haze against its dark cavern. In a few minutes, it too was grey and only the rim-rock at the top held the red light. When that was gone, I could still see the copper glow in the piñons along the edge of the top ledges. The arc of sky over the canyon was silvery blue, with its pale yellow moon, and presently stars shivered into it, like crystals dropped into perfectly clear water.

The Professor’s House is possibly a book I would appreciate more if I read it again when I’m older, as I found it difficult to identify with a fifty-two year old man looking back on his life. This was my first experience of Willa Cather and although I don’t think she’s going to be a favourite author, I will probably read more of her work at some point in the future.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

  1. Charlie says:

    I’d never thought about author age until recently and wasn’t sure if it’d ring true for me, but today I started a book where the character is older and the author too and I just couldn’t relate to it.

    Interesting review 🙂 Though I’m not sure this one’s for me.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t usually give much thought to the ages of authors (or characters) either, but I think this is one book that would probably be perceived differently by readers from different age groups.

  2. richardbbc says:

    Enjoyed your review very much.

    Can I recommend A Lost Lady, one of her best novels I think, and different again from The Professor’s House.

  3. bookssnob says:

    I adore Willa Cather. She is one of the most superb writers I’ve ever read. As you said, even though not a lot happens, she memerises you with her prose.

    I have heard many good things about this novel, but haven’t read it yet myself; I’m sorry you found it disappointing. I can personally highly recommend A Lost Lady and Lucy Gayheart; both breathtakingly superb, and with characters you may find it easier to relate to, as they’re about young women.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you like this one when you get around to reading it. I was only slightly disappointed by it – it was too slow for me, particularly at the beginning, but apart from that I did enjoy it. I would definitely like to read another of her books, so thanks for the recommendations.

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