‘A Manual For Cleaning Women’ By Lucia Berlin: Book Review

by Holiday Black

Short story author Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women tells of the rough-and-tumble experiences of working class women. These 43 stories are by no means a cakewalk.

Berlin drags us on callused heels through the dreary laundromats and dirty houses where her characters reside. Berlin’s life was colored by struggles with alcoholism, divorce, blue-collar jobs, and single motherhood, and her characters are like herself. It’s not common to see a cleaning woman as a heroine, but Berlin gives us all the perverse details we didn’t ask for, including wiping down her employer’s coke mirror. In “Tiger Bites,” we follow a woman who travels to Juarez to get an illegal abortion. “Unmanageable”  is the tale of a woman counting her pennies, trying to hold out until the morning when the liquor store opens.

There’s something about Berlin’s vivid sentences and no-time-for-fuckery delivery that brings these grim-sounding plots to life and peppers them with insight, humor, and compassion. Her stories pull us into sunken circumstances with an earnest appreciation for the simple things. The stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women are insightful and real, and readers will be warmed by Berlin’s unexpected observations and spellbinding voice.

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