Barb Barrett is having a bad year. After years of dancing around the soft porn edges of marital abuse and in a dazzling moment of clarity, she leaves ‘the experson’ as she calls him, more out of fatigue than actual courage, and strikes out on her own. This bold maneuver has its immediate downsides. First, she doesn’t really think her exodus through and gets arrested for “camping” with her children far beyond the bounds of camping season. Second, the experson is able to convince the court in their small town that Barb is an unfit mother, and gains custody of their two young children.
Leslie Daniels’ debut novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House, is a wonderfully frank novel about the small joys, hidden sadness, and completely ridiculous insights of a mid-life divorcee. What a perfect finale to the summer reading list.
As she begins her new life, about the only thing Barb has going for her is her meager part time job answering correspondence for a local dairy. That, and the sheer dumb luck she stumbles over like a naughty curb when she buys what turns out to have been the house that, according to legend, where Nabokov lived when he wrote Lolita.
While cleaning her house one day to avoid the devouring ache of missing her daughter, Barb discovers what appears to be a pack of index cards containing the notes of a novel. She knows of the famous writer who occupied her house. It seems possible that the writing belonged to him, was somehow lost in the back of a bureau, and left behind. The narrative of the notes focuses on baseball and love, a Babe Ruth tale of romance. With a job that she doesn’t love nor hate, a manuscript of possible literary importance, an agent, and a plan to win her children back, Barb’s life begins to take on more meaning than it has for a long empty stretch of years.
Nothing happens magically in Daniel’s novel. In fact, the pacing and transitions of Barb’s transformation are slow and tangible. Barb turns out to be you or me, and we love her for her goof-ups as much as her strengths. With an unexpected gift of cream from the dairy, as a practical matter, she makes butter. She allows five year old Darcy to steal her pocketbooks and then borrows them back for important meetings. She encourages son Sam to express his culinary talents despite the fact the boy’s father thinks he’s going to grow up to be a fatty. We love that Barb has one pair of dress slacks that she calls ‘the pants’ and which she dons to impress both literary attorneys and university faculty of the importance of the found manuscript. We love that she finds meaning in writing letters about ice cream. We especially love that she recruits athletes from the local college to staff an exclusive ‘spa’ catering to the very special needs of Lake Onkwego’s matrons and which incidentally, generates the cash flow necessary to bankroll the recovery of her life. What we love most of all is that when Barb wins back her children from the ex, she does so with a generous helping grace, and without a drop of malice.
We like to see our heroines win, but not too easily. And in this, Cleaning Nabokov’s House delivers. It is a classic tale of redemption and is every bit as satisfying as bowl of homemade ice cream on a late summer’s day.