The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt is one of those writers whose work gives the impression that they had no choice about their vocation. Her writing is speckled with references to the greats – on to a single page of The Summer Without Men she squeezes Blake, Rilke, Schelling, Hegel, Heidegger and Kierkegaard; she is the daughter of a professor of Scandinavian literature; she is married to a noted writer; the topic of her PhD thesis was Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.
It is a fortunate thing for lovers of words that Hustvedt became a wrangler of them, for The Summer Without Men is a treat. Hustvedt, who has published her poetry, tracks her poet protagonist Mia Fredricksen through an initial, infidelity-prompted psychological crack-up, then watches with eagerness as Mia deftly manages a class of catty teenage girls, a coven of elderly female rest-home residents, her adored daughter, and a series of fraught email exchanges with her erstwhile husband, who has left Mia for a young Frenchwoman.
The husband did not say, upon his departure, whether it would be permanent, but simply asked Mia for “a pause” in their 30-year marriage; with typical wryness, she thinks of her rival as The Pause. Over the ensuing summer, Mia confronts the beauty, the unsightliness and the particular vulnerability of girls and women when among their own kind, and starts to see her own identity anew.
(It’s a theme I came across recently in Lisa Genova’s absorbing Left Neglected; the tendency of women to see themselves through the eyes of others and, when faced with a sudden loss of purpose, to find they’re happier without their ostensible reason for being.)
Hustvedt skillfully blends the narrative with the contemplative, not shying away from allusion or from her role as a literary insider. Nor does she fear coming across as obnoxiously well-read. One passage in particular brought a smile to my lips: “Excitement usually comes at a clip. Agitation in one corner is often mirrored by a similar hubbub in another. There is no rhyme or reason to this. Correlation is not cause. It is just “the music of chance,” as one prominent American novelist has phrased it.” The novelist concerned is Hustvedt’s husband, Paul Auster.
Her writing, so erudite, thoughtful, and laden with literary references as to be, at times, intellectually exhausting – in this regard, the book’s 216-page brevity is considerate – is balanced by the energy Hustvedt gives to the philosophical question of why she does what she does, and who benefits from it.
In a passage that must have been born of the passion of the long-time writer of fiction, Mia ponders the concept of the book club, and the widespread view that novel-reading is a womanly pursuit.
“Lots of women read fiction. Most men don’t. Women read fiction written by women and by men. Most men don’t. If a man opens a novel, he likes to have a masculine name on the cover; it’s reassuring somehow. You never know what might happen to that external genitalia if you immerse yourself in imaginary doings concocted by someone with the goods on the inside.”
Read another way, ‘the summer without men’ could sound like a threat, or a sinister promise.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewed by Stephanie Jones