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.

38 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men (2011)

    • It was unexpected as I liked all the novels I read by her. “Like” is actually and understatement, I loved them.
      I’m sure Sorrows of an American is different.

    • Very disappointing. It would be interesting to hear what you think of it. I found she mixed far too much together and the story as such was not original. There was arant againts book clubs and critics and then she describes at length her mothers’ book club . . . the author was too present.

  1. Oh, too bad. Makes me wonder what’s going on in her personal life. Or maybe she was pressured by the publisher to produce something.
    I find it jarring when a writer addresses the reader. Let me keep my imagination intact.

  2. How does this one fit into the author’s career? Late, early? It’s always an uncomfortable feeling to pick up a book by a favoured author and feel disappointed. I still have to read The Enchantment of LD

    • It’s the last novel she wrote. I think she writes far more essays these days andthere are regularly new collections coming out.
      This book is everything and nothing. I love The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, it’s my favorite of her books one of my all time favs.

      • Good to know it’s your favourite as it’s the ONE I have. I think that authors sometimes burn out at the end of their careers. Some seem to keep writing the same novel.

        • I don’t know what happened here and clearly I’m not a majority, many liked it but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t. You’d find it annoying. I suppose when you don’t read all that much then it’s a book you’d enjoy (maybe) but with a lot to compare it to it just fails on too many levels.

  3. Caroline,
    I enjoyed reading your criticism and commentary very, very much. I wish that more of us in the blogging world would do this when pointed topics come up.

    I have read two novels by Hustvedt but nothing in the last 8 years, I don’t think. Despite my enjoyment of the two novels I read, I always felt that the novels did not totally “hang together,” which is such a crude phrase. I always felt a lack of unity in her plots, as much as I enjoyed reading them.

    Her creativity is there; in my opinion the craft has been lacking.

    I felt the memoir was too far removed from her personal experience–that’s just my gut reaction.

    Thank you so much for posting about this.


    • Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting to read how you perceive her. What she’s doing is very uneven but in the past I had a feeling there was still cohesion but here it felt like she just went with the flow, writing this and that along a very lose story line.
      It’s very weird but I felt she was cheating. Pretending to be a storyteller while she just wanted to serves us her insights on topics that were on her mind while writing.
      In German I would say “Sie will uns für dumm verkaufen”, which means, I think “to take us for fools”. That’s arrogant and annoying.
      And yes.there isn’t a lot of craft. None of the sentences is beauiful or no descriptions stand out.

  4. Wonderful review, Caroline. Sorry to know that you didn’t like Siri Hustvedt’s book as much as you had hoped to. It is disappointing when our favourite writer comes up with a book which is not as good as some of her earlier ones. I found your thoughts on the amount of literary theory that can be included in a novel, quite interesting. I also found your thoughts on writer vs academic quite interesting. I have mixed feelings about both. I think literary theory in a novel is interesting, but if it is just information and if the author looks down on the reader and if the book doesn’t hang well together because of this, then there is a problem. One trend I find these days (or maybe it was always there) is that some novelists become academics – they end up teaching literature or creative writing – and then suddenly in their next book they are experimenting – with the structure, style, storytelling, themes – and they are trying to pay homage to Derrida, Barthes, Joyce, Virginia Woolf. And the book looks strange when compared to the rest of the author’s works and the original readers of the author find it difficult to see the author in that book. One of the things I love about your reviews is that when you don’t like a book of a famous author as much as you had expected, you always say that. I find that whenever a famous admired writer comes out with a new book (for example, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Barbara Kingsolver, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, J.K.Rowling) everyone – readers, writers, critics – says that it is great. And sometimes when I read one of these books and find that I didn’t like it that much, I wonder why no one said that. And that is one reason I loved your review so much. I hope though that the you like the next Siri Hustvedt book that you read, more.

    • Thanks so much Vishy.
      I was thinking about this review for quite a while but then I decided I just had to write about the problems and because I knw her work well and like her a lot I tought I can do it.
      Literary theory can be in a novel, but not like that. I hate name dropping in novels, it only rarely works. Angela Carter was an academic and she used that background in her work but look at the difference.
      I’m not always for show don’t tell but if you compare Carter and Hustvedt this is the biggest difference. And you can feel that academic background in her vocabulary and the writing which is perfect.
      I haven’t come across writers who became academics. Who did you have in mind? That’s very interesting. Umberto Eco is another example of an academic who still manages to write great books but he too works with style as well.
      I read at least five reviews of critics and they all lauded Hustvedt. Funny enough there is this quote in the novel:
      “God is frowning on this, I tell you. He is frowning.” I saw him Mrs. Lorquat’s own God the father filling the sky, a clean-shaven chap in a suit and tie, brow furrowed, implacably stern, an utterly humourless lover of mediocrity, God as the quintessential American reviewer.” Ha! Don’t you think upon reading this no critic wanted to be associated with this and in doing so did exactly that – support something entirely mediocre.

      • It is interesting to read your comparison of Angela Carter and Siri Hustvedt, Caroline. I didn’t know that Carter was an academic. Her writing style and point of view are so unique and she doesn’t throw literary theory terms or famous names around. On writers becoming academics, I didn’t really mean ‘academic academic’ but writers who started teaching creative writing at universities 🙂 Some of them that I can think of are Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Francine Prose.

        Umberto Eco is definitely a wonderful writer. I remember reading in Stu’s (from Winstondad’s blog) review of one of his books that he is regarded as too intelligent for his own good 🙂

        That quote made me smile 🙂 Either the critics didn’t notice it or were big enough to accept it. And the added dimension that the critics, by their praise for the book, made those lines come true, really makes me think.

        • Exactly. that’s what I mean, there is actually a lot of literaray theory in Carter’s work and other theories as well but it’s part of the story and doesn’t stick out.
          I see what you mean, writers ho then start to teach. It’s all very problematic in a way.
          It’s fun quote, right and somehow functioned like aself-fulfilling prophecy.

  5. Superb Commentary Caroline.

    I tend to really like these intellectual lecture type books. However I do agree that this style often gets in the way of aesthetics. In sees to me that two other writers who also do this, at least at times, are Hermann Hesse and Stanisław Lem. I really like them both, but recognize that this is a flaw in their writing. Perhaps in some ways aI actually enjoy this flaw.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      I know what you mean when you mention Hesse and Lem. I’ve read a lot of Hesse, not everything but a large part and I can assure you while he embeds theory, philosophy … It’s not like what she does here at all. This is almost pure name dropping with a brief condensed view on the writer’s take on some things. Hesse incorporated his own world view, she incorporates her knowledge. At times it was like listening to someone small talking on sophosticated topics but still smalltalking. I could be wrong but I don’t think you’d like the way she does it at all.

  6. I have it at home in French, someone lent it to me. I’m surprised by your review. The person who gave it to me has read several Hustvedt and she liked it very much. She has little patience with romance, doesn’t like pretentious books and is usually a good judge of the literary qualities of a novel. I’m surprised that she coped well with the academic side of it. It puzzles me that you two have such a different opinion of this book.
    Now I want to read it to make up my mind.

    PS : I enjoyed The Sorrows of an American.

    • It’s not romance at all, but I found it very gerne in the readable parts. Name dropping, in my opinion, is lazy writing and it’s so full of clichés, it hurt.
      I liked all the Hustvedts I’ve read so far but not this one. I’d rather read a good beach & transportation book as you call them or something really sophisticazed but not such a hybrid. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

  7. Hmmm…. sounds like I should try this author again. I read A Summer Without Men, and didn’t particularly enjoy it. Not sure now whether it was the writing itself, or because I thought the protagonist was utterly pathetic… I suspect it was the latter, lol.

  8. I’ve never read her but the reviews of this one was actually the final straw in persuading me to read her. Now … well, I will still read her ( and her husband!) but I’ll probably choose a different starting point!

    • Yes, absolutely. Try one of the first three. If you like one you’ll like the others probabaly as well but keep this for last.
      Auster’s New York Trilogy is very interesting. Its actually three novellas, I liked one a lot and the other ones were good too.
      I’ve read Mr Vertigo too but that wasn’t my thing.

  9. Sounds like an off novel. I read (ages and ages ago) The Blindfold and then later The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, but neither has stuck with me (not a criticism of her books only a memory from which books fade far too quickly). I think this happens to authors sometimes–their early work tends to be their strongest, but maybe with time she’ll be in better form.

    • I thought it was totally off. Funny enough, Tony who review it too liked the parts I didn’t but didn’t like the other parts.
      When I wonder while reading a book “Why the heck has the author written this?” then it’s not a good sign.

  10. Pingback: That summer could have been without us as well | Book Around The Corner

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