Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Summer Without Men

I do a little jig every time Siri Hustvedt releases a new book; however, I have to admit that I had more than a few reservations about her newest novel, The Summer Without Men.
  1. Cover = gag
  2. Premise = meh
  3. First two times I tried to read it = epicfail
All those scary contributing factors aside, I actually really enjoyed this book once I quieted my motherhood-induced ADHD, sat down, and read for a while. The premise is still "meh," but the execution is far more than "meh."

Mia is a poet, mother to a grown daughter, mental hospital graduate, and wife-in-limbo. After a scandalous number of married years, her renowned neuroscientist husband decides he needs a "pause", French co-worker affair. This is the morsel that sends Mia over into the psychiatric ward, but upon being released, she runs off to visit her mother in Minnesota where the mom lives in a retirement home. She rents a house and the proverbial healing begins. Oh, and her mom has four friends, and the collective geriatric bunch is labeled, "The Five Swans."

You can probably see why this premise gave me pause. It's do I put this delicately...standard? Boring even? I was picturing a darker version of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

End of the day, I should've had more faith in Hustvedt, as this was not as sweet and sticky as I feared. In fact, it was quite cunning and hilarious in spots, sad and just plain interesting in others. Mia's experience is a peak inside womanhood at a variety of ages and maturity levels. She socializes with The Five Swans, teaches a poetry workshop to young girls, and acts as a sounding board and escape for her 30-something married neighbor and her children.

I assumed from the book's description that The Five Swans would monopolize Mia's time in the book, but not so. It's a pretty even split over the different groups. Of the Swans, though, Abigail takes the cake. She's in her 90s, noticeably hunched, and uses a walker, but she's a hoot. Throughout the narrative we come to find out that she had something of an unhappy life, but she tended to express her discontent in odd and titillating sewing projects -- unforeseen nudity, lewdidity (made that up!), and just all-around craziness sewn into the undersides of tablecloths, the linings of dresses, and hidden in wall hangings.

This first account of her creations delighted me...
The image on my lap was another needlepoint, but this one was dominated by a huge gray-blue vacuum cleaner, complete with an Electrolux label on its flank. The thing was not grounded but airborne, a flying machine guided by a disproportionately small, mostly naked woman--she wore only high heels--who sailed alongside it in the blue sky, commandeering its long hose. The household appliance was engaged in the business of sucking up a miniature town below. I studied the two legs of a tiny man that stuck out from the bottom of the attachment and the hair of another pulled upward by the air, his mouth open in terror. Cows, pigs, chickens, a church, and a school had all been uprooted and were soon to be digested by the hungry hose. Abigail had worked hard on the suction disaster scene; each figure and building had been rendered in tiny precise stitches. Then I saw the miniature sign that said BONDEN hovering just outside the vacuum's mouth. I thought of the hours of work and the pleasure that must have pushed her forward, a secret pleasure, one touched by anger or revenge or at the very least a gleeful feeling of vicarious destruction. Many days, perhaps months, had gone into creating this "undie."
It's this kind of careful description that brought Mia's experiences with her mother's friends to life. I also experienced the same vigor and humor and touch of sadness in her interactions with the other women and girls in her life.

While this is not my favorite Hustvedt, and not the first one I would recommend to the uninitiated, it's a good, solid book. One of the things I've enjoyed about her previous works--The Blindfold and What I Loved in particular--is her overwhelming intelligence in psychology, science, and philosophy alike. She doesn't mind letting it seep onto the page, that's for sure! While I didn't find this book to be as experimental in those areas, it was still super smart, and she waxed poetic, psychological, and philosophical at times. I would've felt cheated without those parts of it.

Transparency alert: Thanks to the good people at Picador Paperbacks for sending an ARC! Sorry it took so long to get around to reading this book, but I'm glad I finally did it.

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