What to say about The Summer without Men, favorite author Siri Hustvedt’s latest? For one, it’s unlike any other novel of hers I’ve read. In fact, although I love this novel, if you’d taped over her name on the cover, I wouldn’t have known this was a Hustvedt book. That’s a compliment, I guess, yes—although obviously drawn from bewilderment, yes? It’s just so different. And not just with its central preoccupation.
It’s so insular, so concentrated, so rooted in one individual—no matter the range of issues that character manages to tackle in so few pages. The sensuality I’ve come to love about Hustvedt’s writing is still there, but it’s more chill with the fact that it can be volatile, that it can lull you one moment and swipe at you with claws the next. The seduction is not a high point—and I’ve always felt that Hustved’t work is out to seduce me. The darkness too, has toned down—so when it makes itself known, you can’t help but squirm.
The novel centers on Mia, Mia who’d just been left by her husband for a much younger woman. Mia spends a summer without men—what men do appear within the narrative do so in flashbacks, and remotely: telephones, overheard voices, letters. Although much grief is caused by them—grief the characters are still coming to grips with, the men aren’t necessarily villains here; instead, their absence is a reprieve. Or, well, they’re simply not necessary.
I’ve come to realize that at its heart, this novel is about need: You feel that Mia needed to write this record. There’s an urgency in the telling, in its tone, in the overall mood of the piece. Here is a woman sorting herself out. She’s confused, a little manic, a little hysterical in the process and in the revelations, a little angry. Yes, actually, the voice has this desperate and disparate, near-hysterical quality—and Hustvedt’s skill is at work here, since it’s all still so tempered. It ought to sound fragmented, or family girl-crisis-y. But it’s not. It only feels authentic. And it’s eerie, dammit.
Why does it work? Why do I like it so much?