Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men (2011)

The Summer Without Men

I’ve read three of Hustvedt’s novels so far, The Blindfold, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, What I Loved, the memoir The Shaking Woman and some of the essays in A Plea for Eros. The novels are among my favourites, the essays are thought-provoking and so was her memoir. After finishing The Summer Without Men all I can do is wonder – What happened to Siri Hustvedt?

Not every writer is an academic, I’d say among the great it’s probably a minority and when you read a book like The Summer Without Men, it becomes apparent, that there may be a good reason. The intellectual baggage can enrich a book but it can also turn into a hindrance and in this case, what meager story Hustvedt had, she pumped up with theory. Derrida, Kierkegaard, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and many more are mentioned and interpreted by Mia, the main protagonist. That could have been done well, but here it felt like a lecture. And to some extent it felt like she was talking down to the reader. Readers with no knowledge whatsoever of the theories and people behind them, will feel alienated, the others slightly bored as there are only snippets. The history of gender theory is an especially pertinent example. Everyone who’s ever been interested in that, will know as much as Mia but reading about it as if she’d just invented the wheel is jarring.

These were the theoretical parts of the novel. The novel has also a more story driven part. Funny enough however that read like pure chick lit for women over 50.

Mia, a 54-year-old poet is left by her husband a 65-year-old for a woman who is 20 years younger than Mia and French (yes it’s very original). Her reaction is intense. She has a psychotic episode and ends in a psychiatric hospital. That beginnning, I must say, was powerful and the pain, shock and horror behind it was palpable. After this Mia decides to spend her summer in Minnesota where her elderly mother lives in a nursing home. She meets the Swans, a group of elderly friends, Lola, her 20 something neighbour with two kids, and a group of pubescent girls who take a poetry course with her. If you think of the triad virgin-mother-crone then you are spot on as the whole story is meant to illustrate the various stages of womanhood. Some of this is arresting, some of it, notably the description of bullying among the very young, is touching, but overall it was nothing new.

Chosing a very intellectual protagonist would allow that theory is included, but that should have been done in a more subtle way. On top of that Mia often talks directly to the reader, which feels artificial.

It’s the first time, while reading this, that I noticed how bland Hustvedt’s writing is. Hustvedt uses only the most common words and the most simple sentence structures.  Her strength lies in her ideas, but they must be wrapped up better.

I wonder why this book has received such a lot of very good reviews by critics. Were they afraid they would come across as not savvy if they criticized it? I suspect so.

The end was a let down as well. In essence the book consists of parts which I’ve seen done better elsewhere. There are excellent YA books on bullying, amazing books about being a middle-aged woman like Lisa Moore’s February, and a few who look at old age, loss and grief.

As for the title, it’s not well-chosen. The Summer Without My Husband would have captured it far better.

I’ve still got Sorrows of an American here, but I think that is far better than this one. Hustvedt used to be a writer whose every book I bought without even thinking about it. That has changed radically.