Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men (2011)

Hustvedt never ceases to surprise me. I always fear that her novels might be too highbrow for me, but she never sacrifices her plots and characters for higher ideas and general considerations, although philosophers and scientists may enter a common dialogue at unexpected times.

I had always thought her voice was elegiac and soft-spoken, but I guess I’m wrong once more. This time, she gets into humour and the result is… nothing short of hilarious. Who knew?

It might be a banal, sad story: Mia Frederiksen is a middle-aged, rather subdued intellectual, a prize-winning poet living with her husband of 20 years in New York (wink wink), when suddenly her husband asks for a pause in their marriage. “The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind.”

This sets Mia into a spiralling bout of Reactive Psychosis for which she lands in hospital for a time. After that, she decides to leave her Brooklyn apartment and spend the summer in the Minnesota small town where she grew up, teaching poetry writing to a small group of high school students.

Between her daughter, her all-female students, her ageing mother who lives in a geriatric home with her four girlfriends, and her female neighbour whose husband is conspicuously absent, it is, as the title promises, a whole novel without a single male character, something like the cast of The Women, the Cukor classic movie (by the way, this movie is so great I warmly encourage everyone to buy a DVD of it for a great winter evening, don’t wait for summertime). Of course, all they talk about is men and gender differences!

I quite enjoyed the brisk pace of this short novel and the hilarious scenes especially when Mia is dealing with her estranged husband. Perhaps it’s Hustvedt’s take on summer novels or chick lit? I often fear that I don’t get humor from foreign countries but this is a great counter-example. More than once I was chuckling to myself during my commute or reading in bed. Hustvedt sometimes directly talks to us, dear readers, but the meta-fiction aspect is very light and never burdensome. Same goes for the heavy subjects (getting old and dying among others) that she manages to balance with wit and a great compassion towards her female characters.


5 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men (2011)

  1. She’s on my list of authors I haven’t read yet but want to get to someday. There’s just so much to read! But I am glad to know that when I get to her, she’ll be worth it.

  2. This was one of the ‘hits’ of last year with our (all female) reading group. I would have loved to have heard what all the respective partners made of it.

  3. I really enjoyed this book when I read it a few months ago – and the humor was one of the best parts. She’s such a great writer, isn’t she? I had a little trouble with the ending, but maybe I’d feel differently in twenty years… not sure. It’s an exceptionally honest book, and I really loved that.

    • I was actually ok with the ending (you mean the returning part?) because of the comic genre, but I kind of felt it was hurried and a bit artificial. I loved most of her books, she’s exceptional.

  4. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation: July | Smithereens

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