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Home Is Where the Heart Is

Cheryl Mendelson ’81 has joined the ranks of best-selling authors whose books focus on a hidden love. But in Mendelson’s case, tell-all passion takes a surprisingly orderly turn: “I am a working woman with a secret life,” her book’s first sentence reveals. “I keep house.”

In Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House, published by Scribner last fall, Mendelson, a lawyer and professor of philosophy by training, demystifies the mysteries of housekeeping and presents an argument for the value of domestic life.

“The sense of being at home is important to everyone’s well-being,” she writes. “If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease.” What does increase the feeling of home, she says, is a well-kept house.

Nearly 900 pages long, and eight years in the making, Home Comforts includes detailed, often-illustrated, explanations of everything from keeping the piano in tune, to repairing a book, to understanding the properties of fabric, to removing a stain, to storing a gun.

Although 18 of the book’s 72 chapters focus on cleanliness, Mendelson’s emphasis, she says, is not on grime and decay, but on the pleasurable order that housekeeping routines (some of which do involve cleaning) can bring to life.

The work is encyclopedic, and Mendelson says she wrote it for both the housekeeping neophyte and the old hand. “That’s why it turned out to be so long.”

Although Mendelson mentions law practice in Home Comforts mostly as a rich source of “unintelligent drudgery,” she says she couldn’t have written the book if she hadn’t gone to law school. Her legal background helped her to write chapters dealing with legal issues for homeowners, such as negligence and liability, contracts and warranties, and domestic employment laws. And in general her legal training simplified the writing process. Working as a litigator, she said, trained her to plow through piles of technical materials and distill and explain them for the layperson. It also prepared her for the “brazen” and “tireless” pursuit of knowledge from agencies such as the EPA and the FDA, which she called again and again.

The book, which has sold over 200,000 copies, has been widely reviewed by papers including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and has received more attention than most volumes that are shelved in the “Home” section of the bookstore. Mendelson may be one of the few authors to have appeared last year on both the TV show Martha Stewart Living and Christopher Lydon’s “The Connection” on public radio.

Reader response has been heated. “Some people hate it,” she said. “I think some people think I have the arch-conservative goals of getting women out of the workplace and back into the home. Of course that isn’t my program at all.”

“The book is relentlessly gender neutral,” she said. Anyone, Mendelson writes, can be domestic: men, women, those who work and who have children. The secret, she says, lies in understanding the schedules and routines of domestic life, including lists of daily, monthly, semimonthly, and annual chores. It’s the routine, not the scope of the list, that’s essential, she says. “By making tasks part of routines, every one becomes a little bite you can handle, as automatic as brushing your teeth.”

Emily Newburger

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