A Manual for Cleaning Women

Maya Feldman On:

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin passed away in 2004 without having enjoyed true recognition during her lifetime. The new collection of her stories, published in 2015, from which this story has been taken, revived the works of this marvelous writer and gave her her rightful place among Flannery O’Connor and others in the short story canon of American literature. Lucia Berlin’s short stories, her unique life story and her beauty, which seemed to have been taken straight out of a “Mad Men” episode captivated both the American and British critics and a mass audience of readers; with its publication the collection went straight to the top of the New York Times best sellers list. The story I have chosen here is based on Berlin’s personal experiences as a cleaning woman, one of the many jobs she was forced to take to support her four children after her husband’s death. I found myself enchanted by her voice.

I was captivated by the honesty and precision of her writing, which has remained just as poignant forty years later. The Lucia Berlin who speaks in this story on behalf of the cleaning women never forgets the Lucia Berlin who is an author and intellectual, and through the advice she offers her successors she preserves her position internally and externally, describing a place in which she is a temporary visitor, in passing, miserable and heartbroken, lingering between bus stations in Los Angeles. This story is imbued with an odd intimacy that gives it its power: the narrator knows how to call things by their name, she knows the “tricks” of the trade, but also knows how to place them within a local and cultural context—the names of brands, television commercials—she uses precise flashes to expose the intimate lives of her customers, but also the intimate face of city life, and gradually, the intimate details of her own life. It is this dualism that stands in the center of the story. A maid’s brief visit, a woman gazing out the bus window, a temporary job as a cleaning woman — these alone are enough for the author to create an entire world that is witty, humorous, critical, very sensitive and powerful, and which is imparted in a distinct female voice that resonates to this day.

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