Book Review: Cleaning Nabokov’s House

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This book came in a great big box of random advanced review copies sent to me by an amazingly generous friend. I can’t describe to you how fun it is to just dip in with my eyes closed and pull out a book. It’s like Christmas, only it’s all books, and you have no idea what to expect.

Which brings me to expectations. Expectations are important to a book. In my book group this week we were talking about how the context in which you read a book matters…who told you to read the book, what you’ve heard about the book, are you reading for yourself or for a book group or some other kind of obligation. With a box of random books, you really have no context and no expectations, though sometimes the cover itself or the publisher or even the typeface can create their own set of expectations. And then as you start reading, you begin to form expectations.

A very quick paragraph about the plot. The narrator, Barb, leaves her husband and loses custody of her two children. She’s a New Yorker who followed her husband to Onkwedo in upstate New York, and part of the book is about her learning how to love life in a small town. You know I love small towns, so that’s a plus. She also buys Nabokov’s house and finds what may or may not be a lost novel about Babe Ruth hidden in the house. Later there’s some prostitution and some romance.

I enjoyed Cleaning Nabokov’s House, but I found my expectations for the book kept kind of bumping into each other, like drunken party goers after someone turned off all the lights. It had Nabokov in the title, and that seemed to suggest to me something serious and literary. The first person narrator avoids names for anyone besides her children for the good first 50 pages, and often characters with no names suggests serious literary fiction. And then there’s a tone of emotional distance in much of the book which also often suggests serious literary fiction. So I’m thinking, I’m in serious literary fiction land here.

But then somewhere around page 100 or so, I began to get a distinct chick-lit, or at least less serious kind of mildly literary fiction vibe. Is there a genre name for that? Something like Elizabeth Berg or Sarah Addison Allen? Not quite Jennifer Weiner, but not really, well, Nabokov, either?

So then I’m thinking, well, okay, this is a kind of not quite chick-lit book that just had a confusing beginning where it wasn’t sure it was in fact chick-lit. Then I read the author bio in the beginning and saw that she’s had short stories published in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review and New Ohio Review, and I thought, oh, crap. I got it wrong again. This is in fact literary fiction, because she published stories in those magazines.

So all of these stumbling expectations have made me ruminate on exactly what makes a good book. Is a good book one that neatly fits into our categories? Is it necessarily a bad book just because there’s some category confusion? My answer right this moment would probably be that if it distracts you too much from the book itself, category confusion is probably not a good thing, and so this was not a good thing in Daniels’ novel.

On the other hand, I finished the novel, because I came to care about the characters. I don’t have any problem with my nameless not quite chick lit genre. I really like Sarah Addison Allen. And when the book was over, I found myself thinking about the characters, missing them a little bit, missing the life of being in the book. That seems to me always a good sign.

Okay, one more bad thing and then one more good thing (because you should always end on a positive note when grading student papers or reviewing a book). In the book, we’re supposed to believe that Barb decides to leave her husband (there’s a dishwasher involved, which I personally can very easily imagine being the source of great marital strife), takes her children out of school and camps out for two days with them. Then the police come and arrest Barb for kidnaping and give her husband custody of the children. Barb gets only one weekend every month. Now, her husband is supposedly much beloved in Onkwedo, which is part of how Barb explains this turn of events, but I find it hard to believe that first of all, a mother taking her children could ever actually be considered kidnaping. And second, that a judge would really take custody away from a mother who seems relatively normal, no matter who the father or how well like he is. I couldn’t quite let go of this sticking point for a good chunk of the book.

One last good thing. Some of the characters in the town are quite quirky and interesting. There’s the socially awkward owner of the Old Daitch Dairy who refuses to bring back cherry vanilla flavor ice cream, her mail man Bill and his wife Margie, a literary agent who rides around in Bill’s mail truck from time to time. If you add in all these folks, I would rate the book enjoyable once you get past the expectational chaos.

What do you think about books and genres?  Is it okay to blend genres or categories, or is that bad?  And when is it good and when is it bad?

What’s next?
Tomorrow: Flower and vegetable catalogue reviews
Upcoming: The Swimming Pool, by Holly LeCraw and The Ruth Stout NoWork Garden Book

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