Upstate New York is not widely considered a mecca for best-selling authors, but with historical and current ties to the book industry, Ithaca is worming its way onto the pages of different stories.
Vladimir Nabokov spent two years writing in Ithaca before penning the controversial novel “Lolita” in 1955. Now, local author Leslie Daniels calls his house her home. Her new novel, “Cleaning Nabokov’s House,” is the fictional story of a woman who, like
Daniels, moves into Nabokov’s home in upstate New York.
Barb Barrett is a woman approaching 40 who, after losing her children in a custody battle, lacks motivation for everything else. After finding an abandoned manuscript of the “Babe Ruth” baseball tale in her new house, Barrett desperately tries to rebuild her life and authenticate the unknown author.
Along the way, she decides to try her hand at writing romance novels, and, in an inspired move, opens a male “cathouse” in an attempt to ignite the dulled passion of the other women of the town.
Barrett is an unreliable narrator at best, but a witty one at that. The story is told entirely through her first-person past account, with snippets of dialogue highlighting her quips. She interjects herself often, but she is self-reflective to a fault at times.
Barrett’s children are two of the most realistic and genuine characters in the novel. Their authentic dialogue and mannerisms demonstrate Daniels’ attention to detail. The meticulous, colorful, spot-on description rings true throughout the novel, from the old-world look of Nabokov’s kitchen to Barrett’s attempt to find a new style, and is one of the greatest strengths of the writing.
The story, however, seems disjointed. Barrett doesn’t need to discover the manuscript in order to start the cathouse or reinvent her life; it serves only as a device to move the story forward. It seems like two books in one. The first is about a middle-aged woman struggling to find herself and get her children back through her writing and finding this incomplete book. The second has the same goal, only through helping women in town gain independence.
But the muddled plot picks up and Daniels’ best writing comes nearly one-third of the way through the novel. When Barrett decides to open the cathouse, she pools young male “research assistants” from the local university to help with her project. The long exposition detailing Barrett’s insecurities with her money, her children and her job come to fruition, moving her from a static character to one motivated to change her own life.
With a jarring ending of eight unrelated chapters, each a page or two long, the book attempts to wrap up the separate aspects of the plot: Barrett’s job writing letters for an ice cream company, her romance novel, her children, her love interest, her whorehouse and Nabokov’s house.
Unfortunately, Nabokov’s house is left in the dust as Barrett starts the cathouse and her new life outside of it. The story seems separate, titling a book after one home but really cleaning up another — the abandoned hunting lodge in the woods for her cathouse. Barrett doesn’t, in fact, clean up Nabokov’s house, but rather her own life as she finds the motivation in the end to fight for custody of her children.
Living in her own head, Barrett’s warmth and blunt honesty make her character a redeeming part of the novel. She’s so well written, the reader trudges through the disheveled plot if only to find out what happens to her in the end. Barrett is a new voice for self-realization in women.
The rich writing and spunky narration of “Cleaning Nabokov’s House” ties together baseball, romance, upstate New York, prostitution and family all in one. While the plot is sometimes disjointed, readers will still find themselves cheering for Barrett as she finds the motivation to better herself.
Leslie Daniels’ book signing will begin at 6:30 p.m. on March 7 at the Kitchen Theatre.
2.5 out of 4 stars