Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt

"Sometime after he said the word pause, I went mad and landed in the hospital.  He did not say I don't ever want to see you again or It's over, but after thirty years of marriage pause was enough to turn me into a lunatic whose thoughts burst, ricocheted, and careened into one another like popcorn kernels in a microwave bag."  And so we are introduced to Mia, our protagonist, who is a poet, a teacher, a mother, and a recovered-from-being-temporarily-crazy wife.  You have to admit, it's a beginning that packs a punch!

We quickly learn that "The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair" and that Mia has left the marital home for the summer to teach poetry to middle school girls and to spend time with her mother who lives in a retirement home.  This framework permits us to move back and forth between women at three very different stages of life, and Hustvedt captures the joys, sorrows and complications of each stage beautifully. 

We have the seven tween wanna be poets whose bodies and emotions are caught in the transition between childhood and adolescence.   Working with these girls gives Mia the opportunity both to witness and participate in the drama that is their lives and to remember herself at that age.  It is here that I first realized that Husveldt's book offers much more than a narrative of these characters' lives.  As Mia recalls being excluded from a circle of teenage girls, Hustvedt diverts into a brief discourse of ostracism in different cultures.  We learn that the Apache ignore widows because they fear their grief.  We are reminded of the Amish tradition of shunning.  And we are told that the animal kingdom has its own "'innate and adaptive' methods of social control."   In one paragraph, Husveldt puts the behavior of these girls into a much larger sociological context. 

We have Mia's 87-year old mother and her friends in the home, a true cast of characters.  They call themselves the "Swans," and I just now realized that it must be a reference to their swan songs.  Mia spends time each day with her mother and, in the process, gets to know the Swans as well.  Her favorite is Abigail, a woman who created "private amusements" for herself embedded in her handicrafts.   Take, for instance, the floral blanket Abigail made that had buttons sewn into the pattern.  Unbeknownst to the casual viewer, one of the buttons opens and inside is a fantastical needlepoint scene of a woman wearing only high heels flying a vacuum cleaner that is sucking up the town below.   A reminder that there's often more going on than meets the eye. 

And then we have Mia herself as she thinks back on her life and her marriage and tries to figure out what's next.  She considers the impossibility of "divining a story while you are living it...Time is not outside us, but inside.  Only we live with past, present and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway."  Mia is a true intellectual whose musings wander from her relationship with her husband to physics to poetry to sexual stereotypes.  (Several pages are devoted to the historical "scientific" debate that women should not tax their brains with intellectual thoughts because this effort drains power from their reproductive organs.)  It is amazing to realize how many topics Hustvedt manages to touch on in this book, and even more amazing that they are in context with the story. 

At some points in the book it's difficult to differentiate between Mia and Hustvedt, who periodically speaks directly to the reader.  Mia/Hustvedt posits that, "A book is a collaboration between the one who reads and what is read and, at its best, that coming together is a love story like any other."  Like in any real love story, my feelings towards The Summer Without Men varied from time to time.   There were moments when I thought about abandoning the book because it had veered too far off into intellectual territory, leaving this reader behind.    At the end of the day, though, I wanted to know what happened.  Would Mia's summer without men become a life without men?  You'll have to read the book to find out.

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