Cleaning Nabokov’s House: A Novel by Leslie Daniels (Touchstone; $24.00; 336 pages)
Debut author and literary agent Leslie Daniels sets the reader up for a tough and jarring ride before she detours us onto a softer road. This begins as the story of a woman, Barb Barnett, who has no domestic skills and little self-esteem. She leaves her husband John and her two children before they discover that she doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher in their home. It may be the beginning of a period of freedom and growth for her – instead, she finds that she’s powerless, a helpless and hopeless person who’s utterly lost in the world.
Barb finds a weathered rental home in her husband’s (“the experson”) Upstate New York community of Onkwedo, home of Waindell University; a not too thinly disguised version of Ithaca, home to Cornell. This turns out to have once been the temporary home of the famed writer Vladimir Nabokov; it may have been the home in which he wrote the classic Lolita over a two-year period. The very lonely Barb finds that she’s not free of her ex-husband’s demands since she must do what he says in order to see her young children – a purse-collecting girl and a very serious boy. Even when John Barnett takes his kids and new girlfriend and moves a two-hour drive away from Onkwedo, Barb is expected to act as his servant, even taking care of John’s new dog for periods of up to six days at a time.
Barb’s powerlessness may have come to an end when she happens to find a manuscript in the rental home, a not fully completed novel about Babe Ruth that may or may not have been written by Nabokov. Ah, the reader sees, this is going to be her ticket out… Well, maybe. At the urging of a literary agent, Barb takes it upon herself to complete the novel and takes it with her to New York City for authentication by literary experts. (No doubt it’s going to be a genuine Nabokov and she’ll be rich.)
“My mother didn’t like bad things to happen to anyone, particularly herself. To be fair, she didn’t like bad things to happen to me either, so she pretended they didn’t. Her warding off of bad things involved revisions of reality. When I was a child, she told me two years in a row that ‘Grandma is in Florida and can’t come for Christmas.’ The third year, I pinned her down and discovered that Grandma was dead.”
Forty-five percent of the way through this tale, the reader is certain of what’s going to happen. Everything seems to be all sewn up in a neat little bundle for resolution. And then everything changes.
While in Manhattan, Barb discovers a successful brothel that’s visited by men. It dawns on her that her path to power and riches may lie in establishing a brothel in sleepy Onkwedo, although one that will meet the needs of the women in the village rather than the men. One of the university’s heralded sports teams has just the young bloods she needs for her own unique team of athletes. This is exactly where the fun and the sense of personal empowerment comes into play, for Barb realizes that if she can make enough money for herself she can stand up and take on John Barnett in a fair custody fight.
“John used to be right all the time. It was a cornerstone belief of our former relationship: we both knew that John was always right. Only that was no longer true.”
The once weak and timid Barb is assisted in her efforts by finding a strong and understanding man, who seems (and this is part of the charm of the story) to have suddenly appeared from the pages of a romance novel. He’s a working man who knows better than to come on too strong with her, so she’s the one who makes the moves, even when it comes to their first kiss.
And so the serious becomes the sublime, with a heavy trace of satire and comedy, in a very unique offering from Daniels. What makes it all work – and work so well, from start to finish – is that the reader is always in Barb Barnett’s corner even through all the script, set and background changes. It’s a dizzying and sometimes puzzling read; all in all, a fun and tremendously engaging read.
Leslie Daniels pulls out all of the stops in this well recommended debut. Bravo!
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Cleaning Nabokov’s House was released on March 1, 2011.
“An odd mix of silly, ridiculous, and inspiring… a pleasure to read.” Publishers Weekly.