Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Eventful life, in brilliant snapshots


A Manual for Cleaning WomenA Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

43 stories, most very short, almost all from the narrative p.o.v. of someone very much like Lucia Berlin, whose varied life in many different service occupations gave her abundant material. All these stories are beautifully crafted, the characters closely and sensitively observed, and their conclusions — often wistful but satisfying. Among those I especially liked were:
“El Tim”: a lay high school teacher in a Catholic school (like Lucia Berlin in one period) confronts an unusually bright and unruly teenager, with the suggestion of a sexual attraction between teacher and pupil.
The title story, about someone in another job and place that the author experienced, but here I missed learning how the narrator’s boyfriend, Ter, died. But maybe that doesn’t matter. The story is just a portrait of the unhappy routine of a cleaning woman, from which no male lover is going to save her.
“Point of View” is a clever play on po.v., pretending to convey in 3rd person, with an invented character, Henrietta, her own 1st person experience.
“Friends” is charming and funny, about a narrator who, mistakenly it turns out, believes that her very elderly friends need her.
But the funniest of all, the story I loved so much I had to read it aloud to my wife — who had read it but was glad to hear it again — was “A Love Affair.” I won’t tell you more; you have to read it.
Lucia Berlin experienced many wonderful and other terrible or terribly sad relationships, in a great variety of jobs — as medical assistant in a drug clinic, high school Spanish teacher, cleaning woman, store clerk — and in widely separated places: Texas, Arizona, California, Chile, Mexico. Her art was to turn these experiences into vivid stories, as a kind of fictional album of a pretty full life.

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