Monday, March 21, 2011

{review} the summer without men

Siri Hustvedt The Summer Without Men (2011)

The Summer Without Men: A Novel

I took it like a woman. I wept.
I feel (I don't like 'I feel' in sentences, but it's true here) totally intimidated by Siri Hustvedt's razor-sharp critical-theory-slash-philosophy-slash-general smartness-at-her-fingertips and I am continually astonished at how well she can combine this with another not necessarily appealing subject - clever and privileged New York academic types - and turn it into appealing narratives. On the face of it, it shouldn't work; and there is, too, a sense almost of surprise that her protagonists are able to win our sympathy. 

"Ferociously clever": that's how The Guardian described What I Loved (2003), which was set in the New York art world/art academia. Then there was the lovely The Sorrows of an American (2008), in which the heroine's exploration of a mysterious event in her family's history becomes central to her recovery from bereavement. There is a gentleness and beauty about Hustvedt's works which is very appealing - as long as you don't let her love for Kierkegaard intimidate you. ;-) 

The Summer without Men involves, at the risk of sounding disgustingly sentimental, a journey of the soul. The narrator, Mia, a fifty-five year old English professor, has been abandoned by her husband of thirty years. He wants a "pause" (with a younger colleague from his lab). The news brings on a breakdown and after her release from hospital she goes to recover in the country-town where her mother lives in a supported retirement/aged-care complex. She rents a house next to a young couple with a small child and baby. She takes on a creative writing/poetry class for a coven (literally) of teenaged girls. She becomes involved in the lives of her mother's ageing cronies (and their book-club). Back in New York, her daughter follows her wayward father in disguise. This is, indeed, a summer almost entirely without men, but with a full spectrum of womanhood from babe to crone. Of course, men are never truly absent: they have shaped and are shaping the lives of all of the women in the book, from the deserted menopausal wife to the sexualized teens with their "herd-speak" and the older women whose traditional marriages stifled other pursuits. It is an almost stereotypical line-up in many ways. But stereotypes exist for a reason, don't they?

What happens when you finally have time to yourself, just to think? 
Can I really blame Boris for his Pause, for his need to seize the day, for snatching the pausal snatch while there was still time, still time for the old-timer he was swiftly becoming? Don’t we all deserve to romp and hump and carry on?
(It's not all written like that, don't worry!). The Summer without Men is packed with literary references and other thoughtful chunks: lots of nagging memories to chase. Austen, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, chunks of philosophy, thirties' cinema, thoughts on why women read (and men claim they don't), the writer-reader relationship, and more. 
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.
Indeed. It is impossible to do justice to Hustvedt's smarts, but, even on the simplest level, this is a lovely, quiet little book about restoring the fragments of your self and the healing power of words.

Rating: 9/10.
If you liked this... the other two I've read were excellent - What I Loved (2003) and The Sorrows of an American (2008). BTW, she's married to Paul Auster. Imagine what their dinner-table conversation would be like...

What I Loved: A Novel  The Sorrows of an American: A Novel

Both these covers suck. Isn't this one gorgeous?

Source: the artist, Zakee Shariff.

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