One of the saddest images in this rich and intricately tiered first novel is that of the narrator’s Aunt Ruth plunging the laundry into “hotter water than her hands could stand” to bleach it beyond white. Stony and embittered, Aunt Ruth spent every day like this—fighting off an invisible film of dirt that only she could see. It was her way of controlling life, of preventing it from running its usual course toward decay. And yet all the while she herself was dying inside, with a cancer “embroidering along in its invisible pathways.”
She died an isolated old woman, leaving her niece Linda (an orphan whom she had reared) with more of a sense of guilt than loss. Guilt, Linda tells us, for having fled from Aunt Ruth to get married when she was only 18 and when Aunt Ruth still needed her paychecks, guilt for having realized too late that her aunt had been suffering for years, and guilt for having always been a rebellious child who wouldn’t stay clean.
As an adult now, with a family of her own, she will atone: She will keep her suburban house spotless, she will dust and scrub to appease the ghost of Aunt Ruth. And like Aunt Ruth she will make of cleaning a buffer against the “rotting tendrils” of the real world. The noise of the vacuum cleaner gives her a protected pocket of space, allows her to feel in control. That such control didn’t work for Aunt Ruth is an irony she cannot face yet.
Aunt Ruth has left her other legacies. “Make yourself tough,” Linda was told constantly as a child. “Then nothing can hurt you.” Instead of tough, she makes herself flabby, but it serves the same purpose. She encapsulates herself in “30 pounds of nice safe fat” so that her husband Jack can never really touch the person inside. In fact, she does not touch anyone, except her children, for so long that she becomes convinced of her permanent frigidity. She sits indoors and watches the neighborhood through her kitchen window.
Linda tells us all of this in a voice that is just flat, measured, and detached enough to make us feel the edges of her sanity. But the voice has other qualities. It can be wistful, yearning, caring, self-knowing, and most of all, it can laugh at itself. It is the perfect voice for a young woman who has been so tormented and lonely that she has begun, very slowly, to come apart, but who remains underneath a strong, resilient embracer of life—a survivor.
Actually, Linda does come dangerously close to not surviving. Toward the end of the novel, she gives herself a very real way out: She deliberately cooks two rotten chickens and is within minutes of serving them for dinner. But she can’t bring herself to do it. She is too strong, too hopeful, and she has learned too much by now. She does instead a “brave thing”—she chooses to be honest with Jack, to begin to let him get to know her again.
And once made, the decision leads her unexpectedly beyond Jack. In the beautiful closing scene she is finally able to make peace with her aunt. Linda has been brought to this point through a strange and quirky relationship with a woman as different from Aunt Ruth as anyone could be. Maggie is an artist—flamboyant, loud, self-indulgent, and honest, when she wants to be, to the point of brutality. She and Linda form an odd and wary friendship; their impact on each other and their elaborate planning for what turns out to be a pathetic and lifeless orgy make up the heart of the novel.
Nancy Hayfield is a writer willing to take risks, and Maggie is one of her greatest risks. As a grown-up hippie and spouter of “now” beliefs, Maggie could have rapidly flattened into a stereotype. The fact that she remains as contradictory and multilayered as any real person is a tribute to Hayfield’s skill. The one major flaw is the disappointing character of Jack who is so petty and conventional (“a Formica personality,” as Maggie says) that it is hard to rejoice when Linda opens up to him.
This is, indeed, a novel of women. Much of its wisdom is rooted in the tasks that have been women’s for centuries—nurturing, sewing, quilting, cooking, cleaning. It is the women here who are connected to one another, who draw strength from each other in exciting ways. And yet because its issues transcend sex, Cleaning House is a novel for all of us. 🏠