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For those about to read: Cleaning Nabokov’s House

Submitted by Alex_Wukman on October 25, 2011 – 4:44 pmNo Comment
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By: Sarah Gajkowski-Hill

The title is misleading for Nabokov fans as the book, “Cleaning Nabokov’s House,” has very little to do with Nabokov and a lot to do with middle-aged woman angst. Written in succinct 3 to 4 page chapters, nothing much happens for the first 16 or so chapters except the narrator, Barb Barrett, bemoaning how she lost her children to her villainous ex-husband known as the “experson.” She spends ample time describing the idiosyncrasies of small town life, embodied in the fictional upstate New York burg of “Onkwedo.”  She does reside in an old house that Nabokov and his wife Vera famously rented once upon a time and she mysteriously finds a novel written on the back of notecards stuffed into an old bureau.

The question of whether Nabokov penned the lost novel, a love story about Babe Ruth, is fodder for most of the rest of the book which involves an agent who becomes the narrator’s only friend. There is a missing scene in the baseball novel—notably the only scene that actually involves a baseball game-and Barb, a dairy farm’s correspondence writer, is asked to ghost write the part Nabokov left out.  She performs all of her jobs dismally, which provides for a lot of humorous insults hurled at her by editors, critics, and the general public.  She eventually shifts to working as a part-time “mature romance writer” (meaning romance novels whose target audiences are elderly women.)

The novel takes a lurid but unexplainable turn-about half-way through that I won’t spoil—think the TV show, “Hung.” It’s voyeuristic enough to be a fun read but still littered with heart-wrenching spinsterly problems like her aging mother’s remarriage, dealing with her ex, and the prospect of dating after her divorce.  The children play a prominent role in the story and are well fleshed-out characters; her son being a rotund little collector of cookbooks and her daughter, a Goth tot who tells her teacher she is a “behemoth shit.”

Even the dog that plays a big part in Barb finding a new man is a compelling character. The absolute departure of the second part of the book might be startling to some, humorous to others, but it does kick some life into a lukewarm tale about finding yourself in your 40’s. The end of the book attempts to neatly tie up all the loose ends, but there are a few too many story lines. While you do find out if the Babe Ruth book is eventually published, you don’t find out whether Nabakov was the true author. It’s never so fictional as when, in the end, Barb not only gets full custody of her kids, but also an entire town keeps its mouth shut about her illicit endeavors.

“It’s never too late!” might be the desperate appeal of the author to her audience, but at least this author did it in a less than conventional way. Additionally, her apt descriptions of food and sex carry the book. Barb Barrett is a self-deprecating anti-heroine and, somehow, immensely likable.  It must be all her believable shortcomings that keep her from becoming a whiny stereotype.  The book may not deliver exactly what the title seems to promise, but it offers something all the same.

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