Cleaning Nabokov’s House is a laugh-out-loud pleasure of a read. Our main character, Barbara Barrett, is a divorced mother deemed emotionally unstable by the court. Her children, Sam and Darcy, will live with their father (referred to by Barb as “the experson”) until Barb can prove she has it together—a stable income, a happy and clean home, friends and hobbies. Barb’s journey to reinvent herself—to find a different way of living than the silly, stuffy way of the experson—is a totally original delight.
The novel is partially of interest because Barb is an outsider. She’s an outsider in her northern New York town of Onkwedo, where everyone knows the experson and automatically sides with him during the divorce. She’s an outsider professionally, working a dead-end job answering letters for a local dairy (she gets to decide if the person who complained deserves a free ice cream cone). And, most significantly, she’s an outsider from her former family. Barb’s remarkable resilience comes from her ability to pursue happiness on her own terms. While initially hostile to Onkwedo and to the experson, she uncannily puts her finger on just what Onkwedo needs and opens up her own business with smashing results.
Along the way, Barb moves into a house formerly inhabited by the genius writer Vladimir Nabokov. When she finds a manuscript tucked behind a false wall in a cabinet, Barb believes she’s found a lost masterpiece. Her attempts to get it published lead readers to the wonderful cast of secondary characters—no-nonsense agent Margie (pronounced with a hard G), a slick entertainment lawyer and maybe even a new boyfriend. As writer Dorothy Allison says in her endorsement of Cleaning Nabokov’s House, “Go ahead, take a risk. You are going to love this woman—and this book.”