This reading group guide for Cleaning Nabokov's House includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Leslie Daniels. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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The last straw was the dishwasher. After a decade of marriage, Barbara walks out on her husband, John, while he instructs her on the proper method of loading cups and bowls. A newcomer to John’s sleepy hometown in upstate New York, and now a divorcée, Barb feels out of place. John takes custody of their children (the judge is his friend), and Barb gets just one weekend a month of visitation (the social worker is John’s new girlfriend). Lonely, depressed, and down to her last pair of pants, Barb spends her last bit of savings on a new house—a house where Vladimir Nabokov once lived and wrote. When Barb discovers an abandoned manuscript in the house, her life takes on new purpose. Opening a “cathouse” that serves passion-starved local women is Barb’s remarkable first step to respectability. Client by client and word by word, Barb reclaims her life and prepares for the chance to win back the custody of her children.TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The opening sentences of the book describes the path Barb will take to reinvent herself. Why do you think the author used that technique? What are some other books with first lines that reflect on the whole book?
2. Discuss Barb’s “career path.” How does each of her past jobs—Psychology Now
fact checker, Old Daitch Dairy correspondence manager, cathouse madam, Babe Ruth
ghost writer¾help her in her new incarnation as a romance writer?
3. Discuss the two characters who mean the most to Barb: Sam and Darcy. What are some signs that the children are coping with difficulty following their parents’ divorce? What do their collections—Sam’s cookbooks and Darcy’s purses—reveal about their personalities?
4. According to Barb, “Presentation was my worst talent after marriage.” (p. 96) Track Barb’s success in life according to her wardrobe. When do the Pants get her through some tough times? Do you think the people Barb meets in Onkwedo and New York City judge her outfits as much as she fears? Why or why not?
5. Barb imagines Nabokov’s manuscript as an “ark”: “Maybe Babe Ruth
could be the way out: money, legitimacy even, and a way to sail out of this hideous custody mess, sail away from Onkwedo altogether.” (p. 111) In the end, does Babe Ruth
help Barb solve her life problems? Why or why not? How does it help her sail farther into Onkwedo, rather than out of town?
6. What kind of first impression does Margie, Barb’s literary agent, make on the telephone? Does Margie meet or defy Barb’s expectations when the two women meet in person? Explain.
7. Compare the two men in Barb’s life: her “experson” John and her new love interest Greg. How are John and Greg similar, and how are they different? What are some early signs that Greg is a better choice for Barb? What redeeming qualities does John have, and what might be some of Greg’s faults?
8. Compare two interview scenes in Cleaning Nabokov’s House
: Barb’s “TVQ interview,” when she learns that she’s not fit for her fifteen minutes of televised fame, and Barb’s selection of crew athletes to staff her cathouse. How does Barb fare on each side of the interview table? Which scene do you find more comical, and why?
9. One of the main themes of the book is loss and loneliness. Barb is grieving for two family members, her father and her cousin. What kind of example did each of these men set? What inspiration is she able to draw from her memories of them?
10. As Barb opens the cathouse, she thinks, “I decided I was not selling sex; I was selling a fifty minute full-control vacation from your life as you knew it.” (p. 168) It’s obviously fiction, but how far-fetched is the idea of a cathouse? Is Barb offering women an escape, an empowering alternative to their unsatisfying lives, or is she turning the tables on men, objectifying them the way women are objectified?
11. Cooking plays a large role in Barb’s life. What do we learn about Barb’s character through her cooking and eating habits? Which of her many “breakfast identities” do you think suits her personality best?
12. On her fortieth birthday Barb resolves, “I might not have a plan, but I had to act and act fast.” (p. 277) How does this birthday serve as a turning point for Barb? What finally inspires Barb to act: to spend her earnings, furnish her kids’ rooms, hire a lawyer, and return to court?
13. Vladimir and Vera Nabokov are long gone when Barb moves into their house. Even though Barb never meets these characters, how does their imagined presence in the house affect her? What does Barb discover about life and writing through her exploration of Nabokov’s work?ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. The breed “Bull-Dane” is an invention. If you were going to describe yourself in canine (or feline) terms, what combination of breeds would best describe you? Through her connection with Matilda, Barb has her first intra-species connection. Do you have an animal bonding story?
2. One of Barb’s puzzlements about her new rural location is what people eat there. She finds the local butter an early point of connection with Onkwedo. Have a local foods night at your group, where the snacks are all grown or produced within a hundred mile radius.
3. Turn your book club meeting into Nabokov Night, and screen Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita
, or the more recent version with Jeremy Irons.
4. Barb notices a lot of things about other people, both strangers and friends. Think of someone you saw today that you don’t know. It could be a clerk at a store, or someone sitting in another car at a traffic light. Make a guess about their life. Do they live alone? Do they have a hobby? If they could have exactly the life they wanted, what would it be?
5. If you were going to organize an afternoon of pleasure and relaxation for the group, what would it look like: Massages? Hiking? Saunas? Take in a baseball game? Art museum and lunch at a café? A roller derby match? Spa day? Now…do it! A CONVERSATION WITH LESLIE DANIELS
Cleaning Nabokov’s House mixes uproarious humor with the poignant heartbreak of a mother fighting for her children. How did you handle this balance between laughter and tears?
I don’t think that laughter and tears are about balance. Life can break your heart and be hilarious at the same time. If you were a psychotherapist, you might say that humor is my defensive strategy. If you were a nice
psychotherapist, you might say that it is part of my adaptive coping strength. I was lucky to have an extremely funny father. We had a great time joking and bantering. After he was gone, I found myself writing toward the place from where he used to answer, a kind of calling out. It struck me then that humor is a kind of duty: If you can be funny you should, because life can be so deadly earnest. The opposite of humor is boredom, not sadness. Laughter and tears dance the tango. Like your character Barb, you also live in Vladimir Nabokov’s house – though without finding a long-lost manuscript! What is it like to live in Nabokov’s house? How did the house inspire you?
Moving into the house, I thought a lot about what it meant to be there. I still do. What intrigued me was the fact of an absolute genius having lived in this same simple space, same wide views and unfussy geometry, juxtaposed with the fact that no trace of him existed. I looked for Nabokov in that house. I can find evidence of the architect, the original owner, but Nabokov exists only in the copies of his books on my shelves. Since you’ve worked with writers as well as being a writer yourself, how much of your industry savvy went into creating the character Margie, who convinces Barb to become a writer? Do you give similar advice to Margie’s when you encourage fellow writers?
When I work with writers in any capacity, whether it is teacher or friend or agent (although I have stepped away from agenting) I am very unlike Margie who tells her client exactly what to do to succeed. I encourage writers to trust themselves, to find areas of freedom and excitement, and to forge ahead. Write the book that only you can write. Darcy and Sam are such quirky and realistic kids! How did you create such authentic young voices?
My mother is a brilliant observer of children, I have learned a bit from her. Children haven’t yet figured out how to manipulate their image to blend in, so their actions are wonderfully overt or “quirky.” As for the authenticity, I have some background in acting, and accessing authentic emotion is part of the training. The feelings are real, the characters and situation are invented.Barb realizes that she is “too rebellious a cook” to take a cooking class in Onkwedo, as she ponders ways to make friends in town. (p. 100) Are you also a rebellious cook? Why is cooking so important to your heroine?
My ideal cooking is with people I love, collaborating in the kitchen, making it up as we go along. That way it becomes a marriage of personalities and tastes and the results are always a feast. I also like to cook alone and feed people I care about, that’s another kind of communion. Cooking to me is a lot like writing: you take things that you like and believe in and put them together in a way that is enjoyable for other people. That act is a kind of offering. I flirted with the idea of writing a cookbook, but I find it absolutely boring to tell people what to do and how to do it. I think people should find their own way.Psychology, both real and invented, is sprinkled throughout the novel, particularly as Barb realizes that her customers really want to be listened to and understood. You grew up in a family of psychologists and have a degree, too—did you draw upon your own family and research while you were writing?
I come from a family that had great respect for individuality and imagination. As I child I listened to my parents talk about their work and it fascinated me. That was our family culture. Psychology and narrative writing are very close together in that you are always dealing with how people behave, what motivates them, how others perceive them, and how they think about themselves. My sister works at a large mental hospital and her every work day is like the most extraordinary anthology of short fiction, by turns heartbreaking, fierce, hilarious, tender, bizarre. I listen to her talk about her day with awe and fascination and a feeling of great humility that human beings like her have the courage and imagination to reach out to others who are in such extreme places in their psyche and their lives. As a fiction writer, my orientation is toward character and interaction. In the novel Barb muses, “It probably doesn’t matter where a writer writes, since his is living mostly inside his own head.” (p. 34) As a writer—and as someone who has worked with many other writers—do you think it matters where a writer writes?
I think there is often a restlessness in a writer that has to do with creating one landscape in your head while existing in another. And writers are just as superstitious as anyone else. If you think you need red walls and a fine tipped pen, sweat pants, and a latté to get going, by all means line that up. But don’t spend your life looking for the perfect red paint or lurking at the café. Those rules all seem untrue when think of the adaptation that human beings are capable of making. And interruptions abound. My own preference is to work in solitude.An actual unfinished Nabokov manuscript, Laura, was published last year, after you wrote Cleaning Nabokov’s House. What do you think about The Original of Laura?
This was uncanny because I had finished a first or very early draft and had sent it to my agent two months before the real Nabokov manuscript was mentioned in the press. We were both flabbergasted. I’d even named the girl in it various things beginning with L. I felt the fear that dogs me as a writer: that people wouldn’t believe I had made it up, only that I was aping someone else. When I had a copy of The Original of Laura
in my hand, I felt the humility we all feel before the forces of life and death. He didn’t finish the work; it is an artifact, not a novel. Please tell us about your next project. Will you write another book about books?
I will answer that, but I have a question of my own first. Cleaning Nabokov’s House
has a lot to do with intimacy: heartbreak, lust, romance, sex. I was expecting a question about that! I will be deeply interested to see hear what discussions it provokes among its readers.
OK, now the second book question: I write in a very unruly way, like digging holes in the backyard, looking for dinosaur bones or gold. I am not the kind of writer who starts out with a big idea and makes a plan to accomplish it. I am much more like someone walking backwards through a foreign country, thinking to herself with each step, Look where I am, look where I’ve come from.