The Summer without Men

The Summer without Men

by Siri Hustvedt
The Summer without Men

The Summer without Men

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 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 Siri Hustvedt's provocative, witty, and revelatory novel about women and girls, love and marriage, and the age-old question of sameness and difference between the sexes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312570606
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/26/2011
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 474,134
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

About The Author
SIRI HUSTVEDT was born in 1955 in Northfield, Minnesota. She moved to New York City in 1978 and earned her Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University in 1986. She is the author of several novels, including The Sorrows of an American, What I Loved, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, and The Blindfold, as well as the collections of essays, A Plea for Eros, Mysteries of the Rectangle, and The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

February 19, 1955

Place of Birth:

Northfield, Minnesota


B.A. in history, St. Olaf College; Ph.D. in English, Columbia University

Read an Excerpt

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."

Reading Group Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Summer Without Men are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Summer Without Men.

1. The novel opens with a quote from a movie, The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn, in which the couple banter about things being the same and different in their marriage. This theme is repeated throughout the novel. Mia also quotes Plato, Plutarch, Montaigne, and others on the philosophical problem of sameness and difference. Discuss the significance of this idea to the novel as a whole.

2. Mia has a psychotic episode after Boris leaves her and is hospitalized. Later, Dr. S. tells Mia that "blowing up is not the same as breaking down…even breaking down can have a purpose, its meanings." What purpose or meaning does Mia's breakdown have?

3. What was your initial response to Boris's wish for a "pause" in his marriage to Mia? How did your thoughts and feelings about Boris change over the course of the novel?

4. Maternal feeling is important in the book. Mia says that her mother is "a place…as well as a person" for her. Lola takes care of her two small children next door without much help from her husband. Mia is close to her daughter, Daisy, but remembers with bitterness that she was the one who "cleaned, did homework for hours, and slogged through the shopping." Even the perpetually optimistic Peg confesses that there were times when she felt "blue" while staying at home with her five children. Ellen, Alice's mother, suffers when her daughter is bullied. Discuss the roles of mothers in the novel.

5. The old women, "the five Swans," and the girls in Mia's class "The Gang of Four" are central to Mia's summer without men. The Swans are near the end of their lives, and the girls are just at the beginning. How do the old and young understand time differently?

6. The men in the novel are all either dead or off stage, but they play important parts in the story nevertheless. Mia's father, Harold, Boris, Stefan, Pete are all wield power even when they are not present. How do the novel's absent men exert power over the women? When Dr. S. says to Mia, "You think if your anger had power, paternal power, you could shape things in your life more to your liking," what does she mean?"

7. What purpose do the "secret amusements" serve for Abigail? Why does she have to hide her art? How are the "amusements" linked to the theme of feminine rage in the novel?

8. Laura's brother, Harry, dies from polio at the age of twelve. Boris's brother Stefan commits suicide at the age of forty-seven. Discuss how these very different losses affect the surviving sibling.

9. Mia was the victim of bullying when she was a girl. The girls in her class bully one member of their group—Alice. Mia talks about formal ostracism in ancient Greece, ostracism in the animal kingdom, and the Amish punishment, Meidung. When and why do groups turn on one of their own? Is there something about both Mia and Alice that makes them targets?

10. Why does Mia ask each girl in her class to take on the perspective of one of the other girls and write the story "The Coven"? How does the adoption different personas shift the dynamics of the group as the whole? Could Mia's strategy be considered a cure through the imagination?

11. Mia says, "I will write myself elsewhere…reinvent the story in a new light," and then she imagines herself as different literary characters. She also states, "The whole story is in my head, isn't it? I am not so philosophically naïve as to believe that one can establish some empirical reality of THE STORY." What does Mia mean by this? How does rewriting the story of her marriage help her endure emotional pain?

12. Near the end of the book in an email, Boris asks Mia to "dispense with the bitter irony." She answers by saying, "How on earth do you think I would have made it through without it? I would have stayed mad." Discuss how irony and humor help Mia remain sane.

13. Who is Mr. Nobody? What role does he play in the novel? How is he related to the presence Mia feels behind the door? Is he also somehow connected to Flora's imaginary friend, Moki? Why do you think he starts out as a cruel character and ends up as a friendly one? Is he real or imaginary?

14. Near the end of the novel, Mr. Nobody writes a eulogy for Abigail, in which he links himself and Mia to the dead woman. "Your friend was one of us, the never anointed, the unchosen, misshapen by life, by sex, cursed by fate but still industrious under the covers where only the happy few venture, sewing apace for years, sewing her heartbreak and her spite and her spleen…" What do Mia, Abigail and Mr. Nobody have in common?

15. Mia discusses sexual stereotyping in the philosophy and science of different historical periods. She cites the views of a contemporary scientist who maintains that women are good at empathy and men are good at math and "dominance." How has the idea of sexual difference and women as "other" evolved across disciplines and centuries? How has it affected contemporary neuroscience? What does Mia mean when she says, "Every era has had its science of difference and sameness, its biology, its ideology, and its ideological biology…"?

16. Sex, orgasms, and female and male genitalia are discussed repeatedly and at some length in the book. Why?

17. The old women read Jane Austen's Persuasion for their book club. How does the story of Persuasion relate to The Summer Without Men? The women discuss Austen's character Anne and mull over her comment: "Men have had every advantage in telling their own story. Education has been theirs…the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything." How does this statement relate to Mia's narration of her story? To what degree is Austen's point still relevant?

18. There are four drawings in the novel. How do they depict what happens to Mia in the story?

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