About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, September 5, 2011

#64: The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs

The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs, by Christina Hopkinson (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011).

"What do you hate most about the one you love? Mary Gilmour doesn't know whether it's his not quite reaching the laundry basket when he throws his dirty clothes at it (but doesn't ever walk over to finish the job) or the balled-up tissues he puts on the bedside table when he has a cold. Is it the way he never completely empties the dishwasher, leaving the 'difficult' items for her to put away, or the fact that she is responsible for all of the domestic tasks in the house just because she's only working part-time?

"Mother to two young boys, Mary knows how to get them to behave the way she wants. Now she's designing the spousal equivalent of a star chart, and every little thing her husband does wrong will go on it. Though Mary knows you're supposed to reward the good behavior rather than punish the bad, the rules for those in middle age are different than the rules for those not even in middle school . . .

"This is the novel for every woman who finds herself frustrated with something (or perhaps everything) her husband does. Harried and hilarious, Mary's trip beyond the breaking point will carry any reader through this wry, astute novel about marriage, motherhood, children, work, and above all, that ever-growing pile of clutter."

Opening Line:
"The solitary jigsaw piece sits in the corner of the living room, daring me to ignore it."

My Take:
I was about to say "add this one right under Sisterhood Everlasting on the list of 'books that turned out way better than they should have,'" but realized that wasn't quite accurate. Sisterhood was OK, even entertaining ... but this is basically just giving it the benefit of my rather low expectations. (The only prior non-young-adult novel of Brashares's I'd read was pretty darned boring, if I remember correctly, and the Sisterhood series up till now is an entertaining beach read or 2 with way too many sequels.)

Pile of Stuff ..., on the other hand, was a few cuts above your basic chick lit, mom flavor, story. This is due in large part to Hopkinson's well-honed gift for satire. When a friend-of-a-friend drops by unannounced and finds Mary's home not quite passing the white glove test, she offers to let her in on the secret, and presses a Post-It with a URL scribbled on it into Mary's palm as if it's a map to Ponce de Leon's elusive fountain. When Mary logs on, she finds a parody of the FlyLady web site that had me in stitches:
"Instead of the virtual magic I've been hoping for, I'm faced with one of the messiest looking web pages I've ever seen, with the exhortations, 'Declutter!,' 'A new program for home executives!' and 'Shiny happy sinks!' I am very confused. Is this really the life-saving secret that Alison has bestowed on me?

"I read on ... I force myself through the myriad exclamation marks to try to make sense of it all. The website tells, I finally discover, of a system by which your house will be spotless and permanently guest-ready, without you having to spend more than fifteen minutes a day on it. Florid testimonials tell of lives and homes transformed by the mere application of the 'dance of disposal,' where the home executive will put on a three-minute song and throw away as many things as she can in its duration. Others speak of the elimination of their 'toxic spot,' which sounds like something I haven't done since I had adolescent acne. All write eulogies as to the transformative powers of the creation of a 'Golden Notebook,' a ring-binder of to-do lists, menu plans and household zones. Doris Lessing, I think, must be so proud.

"I read on, hoping to discover the secret of how you can inspire those that you share your house with to take as much interest in purging household junk as you do, while at the same time wondering why the women behind this site didn't think to perhaps try to declutter some of the excessive exclamation marks littering the prose. My eyes are glazing over just thinking about these commands to enjoy the daily cleaning of my toilet bowl and to have fun while throwing out junk. ...

"But still, I concede, can all these women (and they are all women) be so wrong? ... Before I can change my mind, I sign up for email reminders of how to 'Work the System!' and resolve to give the 'Clutter NoNo!' system of home-executive efficiency a week's trial.

"Day 1. By the time I check my messages at work on Monday morning I have 39 emails from my new friends at ClutterNoNo. I'm confused before I've even read them. How am I supposed to find time to wade through the household detritus if I have to spend all my time wading through my inbox?

"I soon discover that I'm falling woefully behind. I should have set my alarm to get up half an hour before the rest of my family in order to get that toilet bowl really sparkly, as well as making sure that I have put on a 'face' -- by which I think they mean makeup, rather than just pulling one. ...

"Day 2. The house doesn't look much better than it did before. I find I am spending so much time trying to create a nice-looking Golden Notebook that I don't have time to get myself looking 'nice 'n' pretty' for the day. ...

"Day 3. What I am asked to do: fertilize the plants, write outstanding thank-you notes, buy the groceries, balance my checkbook and change dead lightbulbs in the cooker hood. I must tell each member of my family that I love them, and one thing that I think is awesome about their personalities. I must tell myself that I love me, and find five things that I think are awesome about my personality.

"What I actually do: scream.

"Stop it, stop it, stop! You stupid idiotic women! Leave me alone, stop hassling me, why are you on at me all day long? For Christ's sake, stop nagging. Does it really matter if I haven't shampooed the carpet on a Thursday? You're all flaming crazy. ...

"I find the unsubscribe button and then declutter my email inbox of every single last reminder, all 103 of them, from that source of 1950s pinny-wearing nonsense. I breathe out. They're right about one thing, those Clutter NoNo ladies, it does feel wonderful to expunge unwanted crap."
(OK, clearly someone needs to explain digest format to our heroine, but still.)

Then there's Mitzi, Mary's old college friend, now frenemy, who's probably the funniest and most over-the-top character in the book. She's the type who's married a man rich and successful enough that they have not one but two showplace homes, each furnished in oh-so-original, environmentally friendly, perfect taste. She takes great pride in being an at-home mom to four perfectly-coiffed, private-schooled children -- Molyneux, Mahalia, Merle, and Milburn -- despite having a staff of nannies et al. to swoop in whenever anything messy or unfun needs doing. Complains Mary's husband, Joel, at the prospect of a weekend at Mitzi and Michael's country home, "'[W]e'll be expected to way lyrical about ... the wonderful original features and aren't you clever to have found flagstones made from the bones of real organic orphans, and a bath hand-knitted by a thousand Hindu priests and filled with holy water from the river Ganges.'" Yes, said country home visit does finally happen, and proves to be a turning point in the book, in a manner both hilarious and sweet.

Overall, a pleasant surprise to have what initially seemed like someone's admittedly funny blog have so much insight and heart to it.

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