Don’t let the jacket copy and title fool you. No chick lit fodder beckons in Siri Hustvedt’s newest fiction: The Summer Without Men (Picador, April 26, 2011).
The antics of Mia Fredrickson’s young and turbulent neighbors, the adolescent girls in her poetry workshop, and her mother’s senior circle composed of the wise and nurturing “Five Swans” provides the context for deep intellectual passages and keeps The Summer Without Men light enough for summer reading lists. Mia is one of those intelligent, literary characters typically associated with Austen. The humor of the Rolling Meadows Book Club reading Persuasion – for which Mia agrees to moderate – does not escape me. This is the type of keen eye Hustvedt expects of her readers and I found myself pleased that I was able to keep up.
I welcome a female character who is honest and unabashed about the wealth of intelligence she possesses. Mia does not dumb down for her audience. Mia inspires me to run out to the nearest bookstore or library and follow-up on her recommendations. A fictional character advising readers on real books and authors. Promoting readership inside the fiction. I can’t help but imagine Mia as a loose projection of Hustvedt herself. Dangerous territory for a reader, I know. But Mia – nay, Hustvedt – invites this type of questioning within the pages:
And the pen, as it were, Dear Reader, is now in my hand, and I am claiming the advantage, taking it for myself, for you will notice that the written word hides the body of the one who writes. For all you know, I might be a MAN in disguise. Unlikely, you say, with all this feminist prattle flying out here and there and everywhere, but can you be sure?
Mia’s voice is full of poetic and robust language. She is sophisticated and precise. (I seethe inwardly every time she uses words like “cabal”, “ululation”, “quiescence”, and “splenetic” and wish I could get away with using them myself. Jealous of a fictional being, you ask? How absurd. But true!) She rambles and rages, revealing hypersensitive neuroses. She sprouts poetry because she is a poet – some her own, some quoted. She references intellectual giants comfortably. The fictional Mia embarrasses me but does not shame me: to whom is she referring? (Curse you, Seattle Board of Education, for not requiring high school classes on Derrida, Kierkegaard, Freud, Pound, Hopkins, Rabelais, Swift, Plath, and Sexton, among others less familiar!)
Mia is, in short, a delightfully strong female character. She is an academic emerging from the clutches of a mental breakdown and reeling from the impending actualities of menopause and divorce. She retreats to the Minnesota home of her mother, shielding herself with estrogen and poetry. The Summer Without Men is neither angry diatribe nor revelatory personal awakening. The book is a healing, a breath, a “pause” on life in its own right. One moment Mia feels and questions too much all the time and the social dynamics of her middle-school girl students feel too palatable. The next she launches into a verse on Columbus and the clitoris, without forgetting to trumpet a song for feminists on the inaccuracies constructed by human history’s illustriously suppressive stenographers – those white European males of supposed antiquity. Yet who can deem this protagonist unsavory when she determinedly asks, “Doesn’t the seventeenth-century use of the measurement yard for penis strike you as a bit of an exaggeration, unless the yard then was not the yard now?”
Not I. And certainly not you, dear reader, whom she lovingly addresses and caresses in brief asides. Blame a girl for appreciating a little fictive loving, a few narrative embraces.
Hustvedt is a writer possessed with the remarkable ability of transforming an overdone tale of marital separation and female self-reflection with political, social and cultural discourses on love and marriage, women and girls, the question of sameness and difference between the sexes, and history and memory. She invites postmodern questions on the nature of authority, fiction and construction as the reader follows a middle-aged academic recovering from separation (the ominous Pause) and subsequent admission into a psychiatric ward.