A great deal of talent lurks behind a very thin story in this first novel by a New Jersey resident. One almost wishes she had written a brief essay on the human condition, rather than this slim novel whose framework is a tired metaphor.
We meet the narrator, a young housewife and mother, who is disconcerted with both roles. She is cleaning the refrigerator. It is the morning after she has had her first and not particularly satisfying affair, the climax of a wild party she and her friend Maggie stage at her house while her husband is away on business. The house looks like a disaster area, she has a hangover and her toddler son is seeking her attention. How will she tell her husband about this infidelity? And she certainly intends to. How did she get into this mess to begin with?
We go back in time to her orphaned childhood when she spent with spinster Aunt Ruth. It was not an unhappy time, but one of material deprivation. Aunt Ruth, now deceased, had a wealth of information for living frugally, healthfully and meticulously. And her obsession with cleanliness continues to haunt the narrator into her adult years. In fact, long after Aunt Ruth has died, her neice communicates with her, seeking her approval on one thing, mocking her on another.
Marriage became her escape and marriage becomes her prison. Her latent dissatisfaction comes to the fore when she befriends Maggie, a neurotic hyperactive artist despising her life in suburbia. The narrator shows herself as an apt pupil of Maggie’s, altering her attitudes to the point where the orgy, unthinkable earlier, is now possible.
Preparing for her husband’s return and the inevitable confrontation, she is cleaning out the refrigerator, discarding useless items that have accumulated mold. The metaphor is obvious, and valid, but does not sustain the reader’s interest for long. Fortunately, the book is short and that is to the author’s credit. Her skill lies in delving into the most submerged reaches of the mind and bringing them up for air.
Nancy Hayfield, who won the Samuel Shellabarger Prize in creative writing while attending Princeton University, should be heard from again, and hopefully, offering more substance than presented in “Cleaning House.” In the meantime, she will be speaking at the Monmouth County Library’s series, Afternoon With Authors, at 3 pm Dec. 7 at the Eastern Branch, Shrewsbury. 🏠