IN NANCY HAYFIELD's novel, youare not only what you eat, but what's left over, tucked into bins and jars. "If you want to know someone," says her heroine Linda, "just open her refrigerator, and there's here personality all spread out." Hayfield seasons her book with a variety of domestic metaphors in this tory of a young suburban housewife coping cleverly with her fears, imagination, a disappointing marriage and the insistent "ghost" of the tough, unaffectionate aunt who raised her.
Linda is 23, with two children, living in a subdivision fancier than her expectations. Her salesman husband travels frequently, creating emotional as well as physical distances between them. She is self-conscious, self-hating, insecure, withdrawn, frigid and suffers from migraine headaches; she also has the ability to see herself with irony and insight. She retreats from the world to observe it with inventive imagination, through a barrier that protects her emotionally. "The reason I most hate to go outside is that I've always been afraid of the wind," she explains. "Personally, I prefer there to be a pane of glass between me and the wind, so that by seeing what's hitting the glass, instead of me, I can safely see what's usually invisible."
Then Linda meets Maggie, an irreverent, self-styled artist, with the best defense against such fears as Linda's: she thinks only of herself. Although Linda senses Maggie is "dangerous . . . the kind of person who would tear the world apart to find something she wanted, the type . . . who opens cookies in the market and leaves them there on the shelf," they embark on an odd friendship that ends in a joyless orgy one can only be grateful to have missed. Cleaning House begins the morning after and unfolds in a flashback revealing the strange, dangerous silences of Linda's marriage, the sobering innocence of her children and the obsessive power of her past.
Hayfield mixes serious themes with humor and surprise. She starts at the lowest of low-water marks: a woman beset by guilt and confusion after her one dismal fling, cleaning the refrigerator and party debris that attests to her fall. One has to fight to like Linda at the beginning, but she is interesting nonetheless. Her observations are quick, often witty, sometimes fanciful, even when she is dissecting herself. Her background is different from the usual protagonist of "suburban housewife" novels -- she is young, she finished only one semester of college; she is an orphan, raised with no frills by her Aunt Ruth, above the sandwich shop where Ruth made hoagies. Linda catches the essence of Ruth's character working behind a counter: "She was bitter, matter-of-fact, and she always seemed to be mad at me." Ruth "slaps," "splays," and "gouges" the ingredients as she constructs sandwiches described in memorable detail. Frowning, critical, brisk, Ruth's image fills Linda's life even after she dies of cancer, a woman never able to give approval, support, or demonstrative love.
Linda's problem, then, is not her role as a housewife; it is making peace with the memory of her aunt, and coming to understand the dangers of isolation and withdrawal in her own character. On the contrary, she draws comfort, fulfillment, even wisdom from this role. She lives what is almost a philosophy of cleanliness, alternately funny, affecting and revealing. She says, "You can't deny the fact that the only way you have any hope of elegance is through cleanliness. I like to think about the whiteness of a day at the Naval Academy or the dresses Kitty Carlisle wore in an old movie." Cleaning is discipline, ritual, rhythm and, ultimately, a fight against death. "Cleaning things up is one of the few postive actions you can take against the clinging, rotting, dragging tendrils of morality that get everything in the end." And cleaning the refrigerator, one may clean up the mess of one's own mind and life. If there is one reason that explains the orgy, it is that Linda wanted "to make myself feel so bad that I would then have something to fix up."
In Cleaning House , household tasks, brand-name products, food and litter become mirrors of the soul and universal metaphors illuminating life. Linda describes her theory of "street mail," where each item found in the road is some sign -- "Paper clips mean you should be collecting something, tying up loose ends. . . . Money is clearly and simply a reward . . . other people's marketing lists and unpaid bills . . . an important way of finding a common denominator in the human condition." She finds inspiration, solace and good sense from the messages on Salada teabags, like "'When logic and intuition agree, you are always right.'"
Like other contemporary writers, Hayfield uses these domestic details to comment on her characters' experience and natures. In Mary Gordon's Final Payments, for example, Isabel's poor housekeeping reflects her situation and emotional growth; in Beverly Lowry's short story "Mama's Turn," the kitchen sink becomes a "wailing wall" where her character can seek release in suds and tears. Such metaphors work best when they capture what is both ordinary and essential. Few of the household images in Cleaning House seem gratuitous or overly cute, because Hayfield applies them so strongly and consistently. They not only define Linda's limits; they distill her essence. They help us to see her more clearly, and through her, something of ourselves.