Book Review: A Manual for Cleaning Women
"Wait. Let me explain...
My whole life I've run into these situations, like that morning with the psychiatrist."
It catches you off guard, Lucia Berlin's writing. When you read lines like the one above, you feel that she's talking right to you from across the porch while her rocking chair creaks. But she isn't. She's not even the one speaking; her narrator is. And even though I knew I was reading fiction, I still couldn't help feeling as though I was reading small snapshots of Berlin's own life in A Manual for Cleaning Women.
This collection of short stories is full of characters we rarely see in fiction: women in Laundromats, women who clean other women's houses, women who struggle with substance use, women. Berlin's writing is clever and frank, and there is no doubt in my mind that she has been unfairly overlooked in literature. I am surprised I've only recently come to know her work, as her collection would easily fit in any classroom on writing and literature.
My most pained complaint would be the length. At 400 pages long, there seems to be pieces that could have been discarded as they take away from the real winners within the collection. "El Tim," "Point of View, " "Phantom Pain," Dr. H.A. Moynihan," and "Macadam" were amongst my favorites. Berlin has this way of writing a story, even an average little story, with moments of extremely brilliant writing tucked away in the creases of a page.
In “El Tim,” a young teacher has to deal with a student who understands there is a hard world outside her classroom that she is trying to shield her students from: “These were not yet pachucos, the hoods that they tried hard to be, flipping a switchblade into a desk, blushing when it slipped and fell. They were not yet saying: ‘You can’t show me nothing.’ They waited, with a shrug, to be shown. So what could I show them? The world I knew was no better than the one they had the courage to defy.”
I adored “Point of View” as both a writer and a reader. Berlin knows the thoughts of a writer, and she understands that the narrator of the story (the writer) will speak about her life through her own character. Berlin seems to do this often in her short fiction:
“I mean if I just presented to you this woman I’m writing about now…‘I’m a single woman in her late fifties. I work in a doctor’s office. I ride home on the bus. Every Saturday I do my laundry and then I shop at Lucky’s and buy the Sunday Chronicle and go home.’ But my story opens with ‘Every Saturday, after the Laundromat and the grocery store, she bought the Sunday Chronicle.’ You’ll listen to all the compulsive, obsessive boring little details of this woman’s, Henrietta’s, life only because it is written in third person.”
And she is right. Some readers, including this one, may have a difficult time concentrating on a collection of over forty short stories written in first person, which is why I am not sure if this book is best read cover to cover.
Instead, I think it’s more like a book you’d leave on your bedside table for years, picking it up every so often when you’re ready to listen to an old friend. It's what I'll be doing with my own copy.