[1 June 2011]
Siri Hustvedt is one of my favorite writers, moving easily between genres: essay, art criticism, fiction, and non-fiction. She is phenomenally well-read, intelligent, and a fabricator of sentences so good they can stop you in your readerly tracks. Her latest novel, The Summer Without Men is beautifully written and perfectly executed, exhibiting the polished sheen of a mature writer who has found her stride.
The problem is, I didn’t like it.
The ostensible plot of The Summer Without Men is poet Mia Frederickson’s recovery from the “pause” in marriage suggested by her Neuroscientist husband, Boris Izcovich. The pause, Mia tells us:
“...was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind.”
Mia reacts to Boris’s request with a brief but significant psychotic break. After two weeks of hospitalization, she flees New York for her hometown of Bonden, Minnesota, where she plans to spend a curative summer. She will visit her aged mother, speak with her therapist via telephone, teach poetry to adolescent girls, and entertain her adult daughter, Daisy. None of this will involve anybody with testosterone.
All well and good, but in places the plot is so loosely woven it threatens to unravel. The Summer Without Men is rife with long digressions on neuroscience, a subject Hustvedt is passionate about. One could argue these digressions add depth to the book, or you might wonder why they are there at all. Mia is understandably rattled by her breakdown, and poets are nothing if not analytical thinkers. But the analysis often veers far from the character, trolling through Freud, Heidegger, Hegel, and Kant, leaving this reader in the dust (aha, the real problem: our reviewer is an idiot!).
Add the unstable family next door, the cruelties of the aforementioned adolescent girls, the “Swans”—the aged friends of Mia’s mother, who inhabits an assisted living facility, a “presence” Mia senses in her rented home, and an anonymous, harassing emailer, and you have a plot with a lot of dangling threads.
A Summer Without Men repeats several motifs appearing in other Hustvedt novels, most notably 2004’s What I Loved and 2009’s The Sorrows of An American. All three books feature characters involved in neurological phenomena, strong ties to Minnesota’s Norwegian community, and most oddly, disturbing interlocutors.
What I Loved, based on real-life events involving Hustvedt’s stepson, includes a sinister character named Teddy Giles, who may or may not be a murderer. In The Sorrows of an American, narrator Erik Davidsen falls in love with Miranda Causabon, who is renting the ground floor of his brownstone. Miranda is being stalked by her former lover, Jeffrey Lane. Lane leaves disturbing photographs in front of the house, defaces a tree, even goes so far as to break into the building, encountering Erik on the attic steps. Instead of calling the police, Erik opts to speak with Jeffrey.
In The Summer Without Men, Mia begins receiving taunting emails from an anonymous stranger. In all three cases, the characters engage with their harassers. But The Summer Without Men‘s emailer gradually shifts from insults to a philosophical, often irrational email exchange with Mia that does nothing to enlarge upon events. Mia claims loneliness: “...without him (Boris) I had no one to dance with anymore.” This is a feeble excuse take up with an anonymous emailer calling himself Mr. Nobody, whose opening sally is “I know all about you. You’re Insane, Crazy, Bonkers.” Most of us would hit the ‘delete’ button.
Art features in all three novels. What I Loved details the friendship between art historian Leo Hertzberg and artist Bill Wechsler. Miranda Casaubon, the renter in The Sorrows of an American, is a book designer and illustrator. The Summer Without Men features the ancient Abigail, one of Mia’s “Swans”. Bent by Osteoporosis, deaf, barely mobile, Abigail fixates on Mia as the recipient of her “amusements”” intricate needleworks with secret buttons that, once opened, reveal unsettling tableaus of sex and rage.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are Mia’s neighbors: Lola, her temperamental husband, Paul, and their two small children, Simon and Flora. Mia becomes close to Lola, vicariously reliving the joys of cradling a newborn and interacting with a toddler.
Then there are her poetry students. Each girl is dealing with the horrors of adolescence; some are coping with mental illness or sick siblings. All behave badly in a subplot that, while perfectly turned, left me wondering how it contributed to the story of a middle-aged woman trying to cope with the breakdown of her marriage.
The tals seems to serve as a window into the perambulations of one woman’s thoughts in a “pause”, the breath before middle age shifts to growing old. Mia muses about women from youth to old age, the many ways women repress themselves in service to male attention, sex, and marriage. Often these perambulations are so widely ranging that the center—a woman coping with a broken marriage—fails to hold.
Boris also left me wondering. He appears the stereotypical scientist: Jewish, adored by his overweening Mama, self-absorbed to the point of rudeness. The sole chink in Boris’s scientific armor is his brother Stefan’s suicide. He seems a poor match for Mia, whose broad intelligence and craving for communication crash into Boris’s dismissive silences. Here is a man who responds to his wife with “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m waking up. Let me have my tea. We’ll talk later. I can’t talk about it. We’ve been over this a thousand times.” (Italics author’s) Yet Hustvedt is spot-on in her observations of long marriages, the way separate selves can dissolve into a “we” so shared that even ownership of memories is disputed.
Ultimately, a book that leaves the reader questioning is not necessarily a failed book, or as Paul Simon once said, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.
If you are a Hustvedt fan, you may feel, as I do, that The Summer Without Men is not her strongest work. If you are new to Hustvedt, I’d send you to What I Loved first, then The Sorrows of An American, then, with reservations, to The Summer without Men. But I would never say that Siri Hustvedt is anything less than the real thing.