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Cleaning Nabokov’s House

March 12, 2011

Cleaning Nabokov’s House
Leslie Daniels
Touchstone March 2010 $24.00 336 pages
Thanks to Jessica from Touchstone for sending me a review copy.

To say that the plot twists of Cleaning Nabokov’s House got delightfully goofy after the protagonist, Barb, found a manuscript Vladimir Nabokov may or may not have written about baseball, tells you what kind of fun read this turns into. The transformation isn’t immediate, however. As the book begins, lonely Barb missing her kids, recovering from her divorce, spies a gorgeous blue pot floating near the shore of the lake. In an attentively described scene, laden with thoughtfulness, she rescues the pot from the water, and takes it back to her hotel room and her maudlin musings.

Initially, Barb’s slow reconstruction of her life, her precious weekends with her kids, feels like a reconstruction of an often-seen women’s novel character. The kind with lots of sighing and looking out of windows. But hilariously odd little touches rescue the story from being pensive, even at Barb’s most heartbroken moments. Barb’s self-deprecating narration is both deadpan and hilarious.  She works and lives alone, with a shabby, reduced wardrobe, including “the Pants,” her only good pair left, in an odd shade of purple. Gradually, an ensemble of characters builds around Barb as she emerges from her abject misery. Her kids are magnificent. Darcy, Barb’s purse-collecting, fashion judging kindergarten daughter, makes me wonder if Leslie Daniels ever read dooce’s blog. (She reminds me of Leta, for those in the know.) Shy, quiet Sam, loves to cook and wishes his father wouldn’t get on his case about low carb diets.

Margie, the literary agent Barb finds to help her publish the Nabokov manuscript, thinks Barb should try writing midlife romances instead. Margie emerges as excellent, warmly eccentric girlfriend material, giving Barb the courage to do things like meet with publishers, and go on dates in her dreary small town.

Barb’s project of writing a romance novel for midlife readers gave the story the setup for a pickup line I’ve always wanted to use: “I’m writing a romance novel. Could you help me with the research?” The novel says it better, in scenes that were awkward but still humorous. But I was thrilled.

And that is, as I said, before things got delightfully zany. Sure, the plot twists that really pick things up are improbable, verging on wish-fulfillment, maybe. But they’re perfectly fun, described with detail and humor. I read some chapters on the subway and giggled.

I’m left wondering, though, what it would be like to read an entire novel by Nabokov about Babe Ruth, instead of the few teases Leslie Daniels feeds us over the course of the story. I haven’t read anything by Nabokov. I’d be willing to, especially something other than Lolita.

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