The Summer Without Men – Siri Hustvedt

This was my first contact with Siri Hustvedt‘s work and I came to it in a roundabout way, as these things sometimes happen.

A little while ago I read a post by Charlotte about her evening in Heidelberg with Siri Hustvedt and didn’t register the author but enjoyed Charlotte’s description of the book and the evening.  A little later I was reading more posts from my regular bookish blogs and her name came up again.  It was rather like buying a yellow car and suddenly noticing that the streets are full of them.  Finally Tori mentioned her as well, although in reference to What I Loved.
At this point it became clear to me that I should get myself down to the library and check out one of her books.  My intention was to get What I Loved, but I had a baby-brain moment and I couldn’t remember the title.  But The Summer Without Men sounded familiar, and so it came home with me and entered my reading pile.

I think a very good overview of the book can be had by reading Charlotte’s post above so you should perhaps start there.
Before I begin mine, I must confess that I began reading this in small snippets of time stolen while getting my children to take their afternoon naps.  While a useful way to spend that time, it perhaps marred my initial entry into the novel.  I found it jumpy, sometimes a little pompous, and frankly didn’t really feel drawn in to the story.   Once I started reading for longer periods, mostly an hour or two at night, it began to grow on me.  I began to appreciate the language, the story, the breadth of discussion* and eventually saw the humour.

It is the story of Mia’s breakdown and summer of recovery following her husband’s, request for a “pause” in their thirty year marriage so that he can have a fling with a much younger French colleague.
The summer is spent amongst women; Mia’s mother and her friends from the retirement home, her neighbour Lola and daughter Flora, and the just pre-teen girls of her poetry class.  The full range of womanhood is covered in her choice of characters.  Using the seasons as an analogy, you have Spring represented by Flora the toddler and the girls of the poetry class who are on the cusp of moving into Summer.  In Summer you find Lola and Mia’s own daughter, Daisy.  In Autumn sliding towards Winter is Mia and her sister Bea.  And finally, the Winters – Mia’s mother, Laura, and her friends from the retirement home.

The transitions and state of lives at each stage of womanhood are discussed and mused upon in Mia’s thoughts about the situations around her as well as from her rather rich inner life of memories.  It also prompts some nice use of language.

…I often felt the girls’ speech was interchangeable, without any individuality whatsoever, a kind of herd-speak they had all agreed upon, with the exception of Alice, whose diction was not infected with as many likes and sos, and yet even she fell into the curious, moronic dialect of Early Female.

Interestingly the girls, for me, with the exception of Alice and Ashley were pretty much lacking in individuality in the story even though their various backgrounds were briefly described.  I wonder now if that was intentional; that they all mostly blur together except for the tormentor and tormented.

At the other end of the spectrum, I just loved the idea of Abigail’s subversive private amusements.  Just what you hope for – some spunk and gusto as you begin to enter the latter years of your life.  Not just giving in and giving up but doing what you can to express yourself during that time, even if you feel you need to keep that expression private.  As Mia says after seeing them for the first time,

What do we know about people really?  I thought.  What the hell do we know about anyone?

Oh, and Betty’s observation during one of the book club meetings gave me a grin too,

“I am woman. I am invincible. I am pooped!”

The examples I have given are fairly frivolous and I feel badly** that I haven’t brought forth some of the pieces of prose that I enjoyed while reading.

One part of the novel that I did not really understand was Mr Nobody, his purpose, his origin and his continuation in Mia’s story after the book ends.  Clearly it allows for philosophical musing, but what does he add to the plot? He seems oddly out of place, a supposed man in the summer of women.  I could guess at it, but would probably misconstrue.

There is so much to discuss about this book that I feel I cannot do it justice in my review.  I’m not quite sure how to go about it, so I will have to take some time out to think of ways in which I can describe the different aspects that were presented through Mia’s thoughts.

I enjoyed reading The Summer Without Men and happily give it a 4 star rating.  Higher praise still is the idea that perhaps I should go out and buy a copy so that I can re-read it, revisit the areas of discourse that I have shallow knowledge about and extend myself by learning more.
That says more, I think, than my star rating.

* although I will confess to being very weak on philosophy, so much of that skipped over my head.
** sadly, because of the way I read this book I did not mark up those passages for myself come review writing time, so you will have to make do with the few I can find.

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