Cleaning House is a seemingly dreary title for a fresh, lively look into the suburban life of young Linda, unhappily married, mother of two. It might seem that there were no new fields to plow in the genre of the frustrated housewife, but Nancy Hayfield’s wildly funny first novel proves this untrue on the very first page, as Linda cleans out her refrigerator in an almost pagan rite. Old bananas and onion skins—all mold, dirt, disorder—are suffused with souls of their own, dying, decaying souls that must constantly be pushed from sight. Everything—her house, her life—must be in pristine order. She is not an iconoclast, but in her own words, an iconokeeper.
Linda is different from most fictional suburban housewives in that she was wrenchingly married up from the working class—after one semester of “night school at an inner-city college in a disintegrating oil town on the Delaware River.” She is also different in that she is watched over in her daily tasks by the ungrammatical ghost of her Aunt Ruth, who reared her. In Linda’s recollections, Aunt Ruth is a chain-smoking spinster relaxing at night over her 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, by daylight washing, ironing, folding, “her head bent down as she worked, her several chins piled neatly one on top of the other like thick plates from the diner,” a hard-working, inarticulate woman not easy for a child to warm to.
Anything but inarticulate, a zanily brilliant observer, Linda is nevertheless beset by a past and present that seem to have combined in zero identity. Her often-traveling husband, their house in an unfriendly posh neighborhood, her constant cleaning, even her two children, have taken on a pointlessness that makes her think there comes a time “when you have to do something just to be bad, so you have new material to work with.”
Her one friendly neighbor is the flamboyant, do-your-own-thing Maggie, “the kind of person who would tear the world apart to find something she wanted … who opens cookies in the market and leaves them on the shelf,” and with whose enthusiastic aid Linda plans—if she does not quite pull off—a great orgy. Cleaning House is a very funny novel, but toward the end—as the title takes on larger significance, as Linda throws out but also discovers what to keep from the past—the tone deepens to one that haunts and disturbs. 🐔