“The Summer Without Men” by Siri Hustvedt

“The Summer Without Men” by Siri Hustvedt (2011) – 182 pages

    “And who among us would deny Jane Austen her happy endings or insist that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne should not get back together at the end of ‘The Awful Truth’? There are tragedies and comedies, aren’t there? And they are more often the same than different, rather like men and women, if you ask me. A comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.”

I remember reading with much excitement the first novel by Siri Hustvedt. The novel was called “The Blindfold”, It was edgy, intelligent, and not housewife-y at all. Here was an intense new United States writer to follow.

Over the years , I’ve continued to read her novels. The novels have been somewhat hit and miss with “The Blindfold” still being my favorite and “What I Loved” being a close second.

At the beginning of “The Summer Without Men”, Mia Fredrickson’s husband asks for “a Pause” in their marriage so he can pursue a relationship with a younger female colleague. Mia then has a nervous breakdown which is diagnosed as a Brief Psychotic Disorder. Mia is in her early fifties and has a grown daughter pursuing an acting career in another city. After the worst, Mia decides to return to her Minnesota hometown where she grew up and where her mother is still living in an old people’s home. This is a time of recuperation for Mia. While Mia is staying in town, she meets the group of old women, ‘The Five Swans”, who are the friends of her mother. Mia also teaches a poetry class to a group of 7 twelve and thirteen year old girls which Mia dubs “The Coven”.

One of the problems with “The Summer Without Men” for me was all these peripheral characters. Certain writers such as Muriel Spark in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” or “The Girls of Slender Means” and Angela Huth in “The Land Girls” can quickly sketch endearing traits or quirks for a large cast of walk-on characters, making each one memorable. However Siri Hustvedt seems to lose interest in sketching these groups of peripheral characters after describing just one character. These side characters are under-developed and of scant interest to the reader. I think Siri Hustvedt is best when she sticks to a very small number of characters in which she is intensely interested. This worked very well for her in “What I Loved” where the entire focus was on four people, two couples.

One thing that Siri Hustvedt does well that not many United States writers are good at is putting a story in the context of interesting minds of other people such as Emily Dickinson or Ezra Pound or Sigmund Freud. The absence of this kind of framework from other United States writers makes you wonder if they are even familiar with other people’s work. In Hustvedt’s work these ideas are just part of the conversation with you the reader, not at all tacked on.

Although the novel is quite good in places, overall “The Summer Without Me4n” did not completely work for me. It did not have the intensity of some of her other novels, probably because there were just too many characters, too many characters that Hustvedt wasn’t all that interested in. Siri Hustvedt is much better at the intensely focused psychological novel rather than the wide panorama.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Like you, I enjoyed What I Loved. I really haven’t heard anything else about The Summer without Men,. It sounds interesting, if not perfect.

    I need to read more American writers.

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  2. Hi Frisbee,
    As we both know each of us likes or dislikes different things. Most of the reviews of “The Summer Without Men” were very positive.

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  3. I see we agree, more or less. I found a lot of the the bits about other writers very tacked on. I had a feeling she was just improvising when she was rading this and clearly no editor tells her how to change or improve things.

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