A Manual For Cleaning Women: Selected Stories – Lucia Berlin
Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the Laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians.
Review: I think Lucia Berlin is going to be one of those writers who are more famous in death than in life. I’m not sure why because most of these stories are excellent. Why don’t we study them in school? Why aren’t they über-popular classics? Whole writing classes could be taught on these things. Why have I never had them forced upon me by an English teacher?
A Manual for Cleaning Women is a semi-autobiographical short story collection. Lucia Berlin led an unusual life. She was married and divorced several times. She experienced wealth, poverty, and everything in between. She spoke multiple languages, lived in several different countries, had a bunch of kids, and held a diverse array of jobs. Lucia also struggled with alcoholism throughout her life. All of this is present (in fictionalized form) in her book.
“Everything good or bad that has occurred in my life has been predictable and inevitable, especially the choices and actions that have made sure I am now utterly alone.” - A Manual for Cleaning Women
Most of the stories in this collection are quiet. There are no explosions or car chases. They are about ordinary people struggling to live their lives in a way that makes them happy. I was blown away by the author’s ability to capture human behavior. The characters feel very real and very relatable. Their lives have heartbreaking moments and moments that made me laugh out loud. I also did a fair bit of eye-rolling. The characters are so lifelike that you can’t help loving or hating them. Many of the stories are autobiographical, linked, and feature the same characters. By the end of the book, it feels like Lucia is your slightly irresponsible best friend. These stories are honest. That’s what I like most about them.
“I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie.” - A Manual for Cleaning Women
I was hesitant to read this book because I don’t like stories about addiction. They tend to irritate me. There are stories about alcoholism in this book, but it’s not the main focus of the collection. Most of the stories are about family or caretaking. Lucia was a Spanish teacher, a hospital interpreter, a cleaning woman, a mother, a wife (several different times), a mistress, and the caretaker of ill family members. The stories are about characters who take care of everybody except themselves. They’re lonely, even when they’re surrounded by people. I think everybody has experienced that type of loneliness. The stories are relatable, even if your life hasn’t been as eventful as Lucia’s.
There are over 40 stories in this collection. It’s a pretty thick book. I had a lot of “Favorites.” You’d be scrolling all day if I talked about every one of them, so here are a random few that stood out to me:
In “Dr. H.A. Moynihan,” a child helps her dentist grandfather yank out all of his teeth. It’s a little funny and a lot disgusting.
A misunderstanding causes the narrator to get expelled from Catholic school in “Stars and Saints.” This story is sadly relatable. It’s about a kid who doesn’t fit in.
In “El Tim,” a middle school Spanish teacher meets her match. Her student, Tim, is brilliant and rebellious. The other kids worship him like a God. They’ll do anything to impress Tim. How can the teacher stop Tim from taking over her classroom? This is my favorite story. It’s also probably a teacher’s worst nightmare.
One of the longest pieces is “Tiger Bites.” The narrator goes to a Mexican medical clinic for an abortion and then reconsiders when she sees the inside of the clinic. The plot is sad, but the dialogue is surprisingly funny.
I only have one criticism of the book: I think a few of the stories went over my head. Some of them feel like they’re meandering and not going anywhere. Then they just sort of end abruptly. I sometimes wasn’t sure what the point of a story was or what I was supposed to get out of reading it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand, but many of the stories left me feeling “Meh.”
Overall, this is a strong collection. I didn’t love every story, but the writing is great, and it has the perfect blend of humor and seriousness. I will definitely reread parts of it in the future.
“Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.” - A Manual for Cleaning Women