I downloaded Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men as part of a Kindle promotion ages ago and then forgot about it. The other day, I noticed it sitting there unread and opened it up. And I actually really loved it.
I say it that way, with a bit of surprise, because if I got super analytical about it, there are certain aspects of the book that I shouldn’t have liked. For one, the narrator occasionally directly addresses the reader–“Dear Reader”-style–which was, on the surface, sort of annoying. But the narrator, Mia, is a poet and a reader, and references books like Middlemarch, Jane Austin’s entire oeuvre (nearly), and The Golden Bowl, so the antiquated literary convention made thematic sense. There’s also an entire mystery in the book that, I think, goes unsolved. Did I miss something? No, I don’t think so. It was maybe not supposed to matter, in the end, who Mia’s strange email stalker, Mr. Nobody, was–or maybe he was just that, a nobody email stalker. But, man, I wanted to know! Was that part of the point? Maybe.
And another thing about the email stalker–as the title of the novel suggests, there weren’t supposed to be men in this book. But the person Mia was engaging with intellectually was a man (or, I guess, was he?–no way to know for sure since he was just an antagonistic inbox presence). AND, the entire book was put into motion by a man, Mia’s husband, who asked her for a “pause” to pursue a relationship with his younger, limp-but-shiny-haired colleague, referred to, brilliantly, only as “The Pause.” So, no real male characters in the flesh, but plenty in the periphery (a sometimes present neighbor, a dad in the room once…) and an entire framework constructed around a man.
But that’s the point, I think. Women can’t really escape from men. Like Mia’s young neighbor, Lola, and her two tiny children (Simon, the baby, the one male actually in-the-flesh most consistently in the book, one totally dependent on women) can’t seem to extricate themselves from Lola’s abusive husband. Like Mia’s mother’s gaggle of elderly friends–the Swans–are still, decades later, musing about their relationships with long-dead husbands. Like six of Mia’s seven 12-13 year old students, all girls, use the specter of a boy to torment the seventh girl. Even the two characters whose spirits are the freest, whose self-expression is least tamped-down–Mia’s daughter Daisy and Lola’s three year old girl–are filled with worry over, or because of, their fathers.
Some of these interactions that Mia has with her groups of old ladies and young girls are a little expected, but as someone who regularly spends a lot of time with groups of old ladies and young girls, I thought they also rang pretty true. I loved the secret fantastic embroidery project the elderly Abigail reveals to Mia, and the descriptions of the gawky yet lovely yet truly terrible tweens.
So, when it comes down to it, what did I not like about this book? Nothing. It was great. I just framed this post in a really weird way. Can’t wait to read more by this author.