The Summer Without Men, by Siri Hustvedt

The Summer Without Men, Siri HustvedtThe Summer Without Men tells a seemingly simple and straightforward tale: Man and woman marry. They live happily for thirty years. Man finds younger woman. Man leaves wife.

That’s how it all begins in this intriguing book by Siri Hustvedt. It is a very familiar tale. The kind of story we have all heard and which quite a few have lived through. The man who swaps his wife for a newer model. As we all know, there are twists to all of these tales. They may seem frightfully similar but are all are unique.

The story Siri Hustvedt tells about Mia Fredrickson and her husband Boris most certain has its twists and turns. Boris doesn’t “actually” leave her, he just wants a break. Which, of course, mostly is another way of saying that he wants some time for testing before he finally decides to switch fully over to the newer model? But only “mostly”, as there is room for alternative interpretations – maybe he still loves Mia; maybe he wants to come back; and at the very least he is not entirely, completely certain – and in those possible alternatives resides ambiguity which can serve as a foundation for hope.

At first Mia doesn’t see this. She has a mental breakdown and is hospitalized. That, too, is a “pause”, albeit of a different kind; a pause from reality, demands, explanations. After a brief spell in the hospital, she decides to slip away again, this time geographically, to where her mother lives - ensconced in independent living quarters in Minnesota. Visiting there, in a rented cottage, she seeks the company of her mother and her elderly women friends; in a kind of female companionship with a group of ladies she calls "the Five Swans".

She also starts a small, intimate poetry group consisting of seven thirteen-year-old girls, "informed little broads ... [with] ... shocking lack of empathy”. Also, gradually and slowly, she builds a relationship with her young neighbor Lola, and her four year old Flora and a baby.

She finds respite and distractions in these relationships with women in these different settings. They don’t remove her pain – she still suffers and sobs – but they give her other lives to connect with and engage in, other realities to comprehend, very different outlooks and mind-sets that provide new and to some extent richer perspectives on her own misery as she actively engages in self-appraisal. She seeks, after all these years, to understand what she is – alone, without Boris. What/who is the person that for so long has been one of a dyad, a couple, a duality of seeming ever more kindred spirits? Is the individual that she was still there? Can it be reconstituted from the duality? How has it changed?

Mia’s journey in The Summer Without Men may be just another twist in a much too familiar tale. Even so, it’s an interesting story and a wonderful exploration of female identity: honest, vigilant, intelligent and sensitive. This time Siri Hustvedt experiments with her style as well – some places I liked it, some places I thought it was less effective. But the book – the delightful little twisted tale of The Summer Without Men – I found very enjoyable. It is quite clever, in an odd way beautiful, very vivid and well worth reading.

Praise for The Summer Without Men:

“Exuberant… A lighter, more lilting meditation on men and women, released in perfect time for summer reading… Hustvedt is a fearless writer… The reward for readers comes in the sheer intelligence of her prose… There is terrific writing here, mulling the gifts and limits of art, sex, marriage, but the touch is emphatically light… She’s managed not to shrink the truth of women’s lives, without relinquishing love for men.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“This brisk, ebullient novel is a potpourri of poems, diary entries, emails and quicksilver self-analysis... The noisy chorus in Mia’s head has an appealing way of getting inside the reader’s too.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Mia Frederickson, the poet narrator of The Summer Without Men… is blessed with empathy, irony and a healthy dose of feminist outrage at the way women’s minds and bodies are routinely devalued… [Hustvedt’s] finely wrought descriptions of everything from love to mean girls to marital sex make [The Summer Without Men] well worth reading.” –Associated Press

“Breathtaking… hilarious… What a joy it is to see Hustvedt have such mordant fun in this saucy and scathing novel about men and women, selfishness and generosity…. Hustvedt has created a companionable and mischievous narrator to cherish, a healthy-minded woman of high intellect, blazing humor, and boundless compassion.” –Donna Seaman, Booklist

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