TITLE: The Summer Without Men AUTHOR: Siri Hustvedt GENRE: fiction PUBLISHER: Picador YEAR: 2011 PAGE COUNT: 182
The Summer Without Men (which is an incredible title, by the way) is about a middle-aged poet named Mia who has a psychotic break after her husband of 30 years suddenly announces he wants a “pause.” Once released from the hospital, she rents a house in her hometown for the summer so she can be close to her aging mother. During this summer away, she befriends her mom’s nursing home friends (who she calls The Five Swans) and the young mother who lives next door with her small children and angry husband. She also gets to know the seven thirteen-year-old girls who are in a poetry class she’s teaching and she unravels a cruel secret they’ve been hiding all summer. As the summer comes to an end, she questions what’s next for her as the fate of her marriage hangs in the balance.
I bought this book maybe two summers ago from Quill Books and Beverage without knowing anything about it or the author and it then proceeded to sit untouched on my shelf until a few days ago. I finally picked it up because I was looking for a summery read and this one had it right in the title. While this isn’t necessarily a beach read, it had the intrigue and self-discovery storyline I was craving.
One of the things I loved most about this novel is the way it explores a variety of relationships women have. It has marriage, sisterhood, mother-daughter, friendship, and it shows these in all different iterations. I loved how Mia develops friendships with two very different women over the course of the summer—her 26-year-old neighbor who’s in a toxic marriage and her mother’s 95-year-old friend who takes delight in secret dirty cross-stitching projects.
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I also love the dynamic between the seven girls in the poetry class. They are the embodiment of middle school drama and cattiness and their social hierarchies are fascinating. Hustvedt does such a good job of illustrating the self-consciousness of young girls and the universal desire to be accepted. I probably could have read a whole book just focused on them. It was interesting to see their own insecurities reflected in Mia as she imagines her husband with another woman and wonders where she went wrong.
The way this book is written is really unusual and interesting, too. There is poetry mixed in here and there (both Mia’s and the works of famous poets) as well as little doodles. Mia also addresses the reader from time to time and breaks the fourth wall in a way I’ve never seen done before. She’ll often say things like, “I’ll just summarize this next part,” or “remember that thing I mentioned on page 66,” or “don’t worry, I’ll explain this more later in the book.” It’s never made clear when she’s writing this book and it reminds me a lot of the show Parks and Recreation and how it’s somewhat documentary-style, but we don’t know if a documentary is actually being made.
Mia also goes off on a lot of tangents and will divert from the plot of the book to discuss gender roles or biology or philosophy or literature. I think these parts are really well done because they don’t last too long and they tie in to major themes of the book.
Overall, I really loved this book. I like what it says about aging and who we are at different times in our life and how women are expected to fit into certain roles at certain points. I love what it says about women in general and how we’re often not taken as seriously as we deserve or how we’re overlooked or how our interests are seen as less than. This book isn’t what I expected it to be, but I think that was kind of the point.
Has anyone read this one or any other books by Siri Hustvedt? I want to read more by her and would love your recommendations!
You can buy The Summer Without Men at your local bookstore or online at Bookshop.org!
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