The Summer without Men

The Summer without Men

3.2 17
by Siri Hustvedt

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

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"And who among us would deny Jane Austen her happy endings or insist that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne should get back together at the end of The Awful Truth? There are tragedies and there are comedies, aren't there? And they are often more 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."

Mia Fredrickson, the wry, vituperative, tragic comic, poet narrator of The Summer Without Men, has been forced to reexamine her own life. One day, out of the blue, after thirty years of marriage, Mia's husband, a renowned neuroscientist, asks her for a "pause." This abrupt request sends her reeling and lands her in a psychiatric ward. The June following Mia's release from the hospital, she returns to the prairie town of her childhood, where her mother lives in an old people's home. Alone in a rented house, she rages and fumes and bemoans her sorry fate. Slowly, however, she is drawn into the lives of those around her--her mother and her close friends,"the Five Swans," and her young neighbor with two small children and a loud angry husband--and the adolescent girls in her poetry workshop whose scheming and petty cruelty carry a threat all their own.

From the internationally bestselling author of What I Loved comes a provocative, witty, and revelatory novel about women and girls, love and marriage, and the age-old question of sameness and difference between the sexes.

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Editorial Reviews

Maria Russo
The Summer Without Men is sprightly and frisky, even as it contends with life-and-death subjects…Among the novel's pleasures are its analysis of gender…and the character of Mia herself, who comes across as honest, witty and empathetic…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A theatrically manic poet turns heartbreak into an intellectual endeavor in Hustvedt's intellectually spry latest (after The Sorrows of an American). Fresh out of the hospital at age 55 following a breakdown brought on by her husband's departure for a young colleague referred to as "The Pause," award-winning poet and Columbia professor Mia Fredricksen flees Brooklyn to spend the summer in her Minnesota hometown. There she is in the company of her mother and four other feisty old ladies, the young mother next door, and the seven hormone-addled pubescent girls enrolled in her poetry class at the local arts guild. Mia sorts out her agony as only a scorned woman with a Ph.D. in comparative literature can—by pouring it through a sieve of poets, philosophers, and critical theorists. At times these references eclipse the presence of the narrator herself, but even this absence becomes the basis for philosophical rumination, as Mia corresponds online with the anonymous—and at times abusive—Mr. Nobody. Though initially trapped in a claustrophobic cerebral solitude, Mia opens up, and, in so doing, lets in some much needed air to a constricted narrative, so that instead of being another novel of a woman on the brink, this becomes an adroit take on love, men and women, and girls and women. (May)
San Francisco Chronicle

Exuberant… A lighter, more lilting meditation on men and women, released in perfect time for summer reading… Hustvedt is a fearless writer… The reward for readers comes in the sheer intelligence of her prose… There is terrific writing here, mulling the gifts and limits of art, sex, marriage, but the touch is emphatically light… She's managed not to shrink the truth of women's lives, without relinquishing love for men.
Boston Globe

Siri Hustvedt's engaging first novel…is a fragmented meditation on identity, abandonment, and loss. Multiple forms of prose pepper the narrative: poems, letters, e-mails, journal entries, and quotes from a raft of well-known scholars, scientists, and writers … Hustvedt manages to move seamlessly between Blake and Rilke to Kierkegaard and Hegel while maintaining a forward motion to this fluid narrative… Satsifying.
The Miami Herald

Elegant… a smart and surprisingly amusing meditation on love, friendship and sexual politics.
The New York Times Book Review

An investigation into romantic comedy, both the classic Hollywood version--'love as verbal war'--and Jane Austen's Persuasion… Among the novel's pleasures are its analysis of gender…and the character of Mia herself, who comes across as honest, witty and empathetic.
The Wall Street Journal

This brisk, ebullient novel is a potpourri of poems, diary entries, emails and quicksilver self-analysis... The noisy chorus in Mia's head has an appealing way of getting inside the reader's too.

A mesmerizing and powerful meditation on marriage, the differences between the sexes, aging and what it means to be a woman…. Truly breathtaking… Rich with both the pleasures and sorrows that make life complete, this is a powerful and provocative novel that will have astute readers reconsidering where exactly the boundaries between truth and fiction lie.
Associated Press Staff

[Hustvedt's] finely wrought descriptions of everything from love to mean girls to marital sex make [The Summer Without Men] well worth reading.

Composed in tight vivid prose, The Summer Without Men is energetic, and handles its subjects with depth and wit, painting its characters and their complex emotions in the kind of detail that rings true to life.
Booklist (starred review) Donna Seaman

Breathtaking… hilarious… What a joy it is to see Hustvedt have such mordant fun in this saucy and scathing novel about men and women, selfishness and generosity…. Hustvedt has created a companionable and mischievous narrator to cherish, a healthy-minded woman of high intellect, blazing humor, and boundless compassion.
Library Journal
A poet regains her balance following her husband's affair in Hustvedt's fifth novel (following The Sorrows of an American, 2008). After 30 years of marriage, Mia and Boris can easily finish each other's sentences, so closely are they enmeshed. But when Boris becomes enchanted by a younger colleague and tells Mia that he wants to take a "pause" from their marriage, shell-shocked Mia lands in a psychiatric hospital. Once released, she flees to rural Minnesota to spend the summer in the land of her childhood, where she hopes to heal while retracing the steps of her life. There, she comes to know a variety of females of all ages, each coping with the challenges of her particular stage of life. These interactions prove to be highly cathartic for Mia, and by summer's end she emerges stronger than ever before. VERDICT While this tragicomic depiction of "women on the verge" sometimes veers off tangentially, in the end it proves to be insightful and thought-provoking. Readers may be reminded of the intelligent, evocative writing of Anita Shreve or Elizabeth Berg.—Susanne Wells, MLS, Indianapolis
Kirkus Reviews

Hustvedt (The Shaking Woman, 2010, etc.) explores the Seven Ages of Woman.

Six, actually: No soldier here, though there's ugly conflict among the schoolgirls taking poet Mia Fredricksen's summer workshop. Mia has returned to Minnesota to recover from a breakdown brought on by her husband of 30 years saying that he wanted to take a "pause" in their marriage. She's rented a house near the senior dwelling where her mother now lives in the "independent zone"; the greatest fear of 87-year-old Laura Fredericksen and her friends is to be reduced to the "care center," where those sans everything (as Shakespeare put it) end up before they die. The child is 3-year-old Flora, whose mother Lola (the Bard's lover turned childbearing woman) has a turbulent marriage of her own. Observing all these females in the various stages of life, Mia ponders her own middle-aged crisis. Will Boris get over "the Pause" (her sardonic name for his French girlfriend)? Does Mia even want him to? She's become close to her mother's 94-year-old friend Abigail, whose subversive handicrafts display images of rage and sexuality that speak to Mia of every frustration in her long marriage. It takes a while to get used to Mia's habit of directly confiding in the reader, but most will come to relish Hustvedt's 21st-century riff on the 19th-century Reader-I-married-him school of quietly insurgent women's fiction. (Digressions about clueless male authorities' views on female sexuality and brain structure are more off-putting, but tart comments on male vs. female styles of writing—and reading—novels are a delight.) The schoolgirls' persecution of one of their number reminds us that men have no monopoly on cruelty, and the slow decline of Mia's elderly friend forecasts the end that awaits us all. Yet the mood is surprisingly buoyant, as though a summer without men proves to be the vacation Mia needs.

Lighthearted but not lightweight—a smart, sassy reflection on the varieties of female experience.

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Product Details

Picador (UK)
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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. I made this sorry observation as I lay on my bed in the South Unit, so heavy with Haldol I hated to move. The nasty rhythmical voices had grown softer, but they hadn’t disappeared, and when I closed my eyes I saw cartoon characters racing across pink hills and disappearing into blue forests. In the end, Dr. P. diagnosed me with Brief Psychotic Disorder, also known as Brief Reactive Psychosis, which means that you are genuinely crazy but not for long. If it goes on for more than one month, you need another label. Apparently, there’s often a trigger or, in psychiatric parlance, "a stressor," for this particular form of derangement. In my case, it was Boris or, rather, the fact that there was no Boris, that Boris was having his pause. They kept me locked up for a week and a half, and then they let me go. I was an outpatient for a while before I found Dr. S., with her low musical voice, restrained smile, and good ear for poetry. She propped me up—still props me up, in fact.

I don’t like to remember the madwoman. She shamed me. For a long time, I was reluctant to look at what she had written in a black-and- white notebook during her stay on the ward. I knew what was scrawled on the outside in handwriting that looked nothing like mine, Brain shards, but I wouldn’t open it. I was afraid of her, you see. When my girl came to visit, Daisy hid her unease. I don’t know exactly what she saw, but I can guess: a woman gaunt from not eating, still confused, her body wooden from drugs, a person who couldn’t respond appropriately to her daughter’s words, who couldn’t hold her own child. And then, when she left, I heard her moan to the nurse, the noise of a sob in her throat: "It’s like it’s not my mom." I was lost to myself then, but to recall that sentence now is an agony. I do not forgive myself.

The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rect- angular glasses, and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris had lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions. I have pictured it over and over. Boris, snow-white locks falling onto his forehead as he grips the bosom of said Pause near the cages of genetically modified rats. I always see it in the lab, although this is probably wrong. The two of them were rarely alone there, and the "team" would have noticed noisy grappling in their midst. Perhaps they took refuge in a toilet stall, my Boris pounding away at his fellow scientist, his eyes moving upward in their sockets as he neared explosion. I knew all about it. I had seen his eyes roll thousands of times. The banality of the story—the fact that it is repeated every day ad nauseam by men who discover all at once or gradually that what IS does not HAVE TO BE and then act to free themselves from the aging women who have taken care of them and their children for years—does not mute the misery, jealousy, and humiliation that comes over those left behind. Women scorned. I wailed and shrieked and beat the wall with my fists. I frightened him. He wanted peace, to be left alone to go his own way with the well-mannered neuro- scientist of his dreams, a woman with whom he had no past, no freighted pains, no grief, and no conflict. And yet he said pause, not stop, to keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind. A cruel crack of hope. Boris, the Wall. Boris, who never shouts. Boris shaking his head on the sofa, looking discomfited. Boris, the rat man who married a poet in 1979. Boris, why did you leave me?

I had to get out of the apartment because being there hurt. The rooms and furniture, the sounds from the street, the light that shone into my study, the toothbrushes in the small rack, the bedroom closet with its missing knob—each had become like a bone that ached, a joint or rib or vertebrae in an articulated anatomy of shared memory, and each familiar thing, leaden with the accumulated meanings of time, seemed to weigh in my own body, and I found I could not bear them. And so I left Brooklyn and went home for the summer to the backwater town on what used to be the prairie in Minnesota, out where I had grown up. Dr. S. was not against it. We would have telephone sessions once a week except during August, when she took her usual vacation. The University had been "understanding" about my crack-up, and I would return to teaching in September. This was to be the Yawn between Crazed Winter and Sane Fall, an uneventful hollow to fill with poems. I would spend time with my mother and put flowers on my father’s grave. My sister and Daisy would come for visits, and I had been hired to teach a poetry class for kids at the local Arts Guild. "Award-Winning Home-Grown Poet Offers Workshop" ran a headline in the Bonden News. The Doris P. Zimmer Award for Poetry is an obscure prize that dropped down on my head from nowhere, offered exclusively to a woman whose work falls under the rubric "experimental." I had accepted this dubious honor and the check that accompanied it graciously but with private reservations only to find that ANY prize is better than none, that the term "award-winning" offers a useful, if purely decorative gloss on the poet who lives in a world that knows nothing of poems. As John Ashbery once said, "Being a famous poet is the not the same thing as being famous." And I am not a famous poet.

I rented a small house at the edge of town not far from my mother’s apartment in a building exclusively for the old and the very old. My mother lived in the independent zone. Despite arthritis and various other complaints, including occasional bursts of dangerously high blood pressure, she was remarkably spry and clear-headed at eighty-seven. The complex included two other distinct zones—for those who needed help, "assisted living," and the "care center," the end of the line. My father had died there six years earlier and, although I had once felt a tug to return and look at the place again, I had gotten no farther than the entryway before I turned around and fled from the paternal ghost.

"I haven’t told anybody here about your stay in the hospital," my mother said in an anxious voice, her intense green eyes holding mine. "No one has to know."

I shall forget the drop of Anguish

that scalds me now—that scalds me now!

Emily Dickinson No. #193 to the rescue. Address: Amherst. Lines and phrases winged their way into my head all summer long. "If a thought without a thinker comes along," Wilfred Bion said, "it may be what is a ‘stray thought’ or it could be a thought with the owner’s name and address upon it, or it could be a ‘wild thought.’ The problem, should such a thing come along, is what to do with it."

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