Siri Hustvedt’s new novel The Summer Without Men traces the summer of Mia Fredrickson, newly divorced and back home in Minnesota surrounded by women, young and old.
Oh, Siri Hustvedt. Until now, I knew her only as the wife of Paul Auster. How appropriate, therefore, that this book is titled, The Summer Without Men. Despite its title, however, men are present in this novel, if only on the periphery. Hustvedt is not advocating, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman might have, parthenogenesis—human reproduction without sperm. Instead, in this bitterly funny novel, Hustvedt explores aspects of womanhood from infant to schoolgirl to lover to wife to mother to grandmother.
When protagonist Mia Fredrickson’s neuroscientist husband Boris asks her for a “pause” after three decades of marriage, she has a psychotic breakdown and ends up in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. The “pause” is actually Boris’s colleague (this aspect of womanhood is not explored; Hustvedt barely examines woman as seducer). Upon her release from the hospital, Mia, a poet, returns to her Minnesota hometown to spend the summer with her mother, Abigail, who lives in an old age home. In town she teaches a poetry workshop for teenage girls and becomes friends with the woman next door who has two young children and an angry husband. The novel chronicles Mia’s summer, her recovery, and her keen, sometimes caustic observations.
Mia’s scenes with her mother’s elderly friends are sweet and provide a necessary glimpse into antiquated expectations of womanhood. In Abigail, Hustvedt creates a provoking and sensitive portrait of old age and a life gone by. Within the tapestries she shows Mia, there are hidden scenes that cannot be recognized with only a superficial glance; the tapestries are “not what [they] seem to be at first.” This concealing quality reflects Abigail’s life, in which things are woven beneath the surface and invisible at initial survey.
The group of characters, however, that I found most intriguing were not the women in the old age home or the young Flora and her tired mother Lola; instead, the students in Mia’s poetry class fascinated me. Because they exist in that awkward, transitory stage between childhood and womanhood, these teenagers constantly attempt to define and re-define themselves. Hustvedt perfectly captures this nuanced and exacerbating angst. The group of seven girls, at times, becomes one cohesive unit representing the multi-dimensionality of the uncontained teenage self:
“Peyton Berg, several inches taller than [Mia], very thin, with no breasts, constantly adjusted her arms and legs as if they were alien limbs. Jessica Lorquat was tiny, but she had the body of a woman. A false atmosphere of femininity hung about her that made itself known chiefly in an affection—a cooing baby voice. Ashley Larsen […] sat holding herself chest out to display growing buds. [….] Nikki Borud and Joan Kavacek, both plump and loud, appeared to function in tandem, as one giggling, mincing persona. Alice Wright […] was reading when […] and continued to read until class started.”
These descriptions illuminate the maturing bodies, friendships, and introspection intrinsic to female teenage-hood. By depicting these aspects within the forms of seven different girls, Hustvedt allows us as readers to more clearly recognize the engenderment of what we know as womanhood. Invoking Judith Butler, from a feminist standpoint, the series of repetitive, gendered acts these teenagers perform creates them as women in society. Interestingly, a “cast” of characters only exists for teenagers and the elderly. That is, there is only one young child, only one middle-age woman, but many adolescents and old ladies. Perhaps Hustvedt is invoking the parallels and symmetries between these two age groups and their relationship to gender.
The most provoking scene in this novel is the battle between these teenage girls close to the novel’s conclusion. Meek and quiet Alice Wright has become a scapegoat and source of cruelty and black humor for the other girls. Her mother Ellen arranges a meeting of parents, and within this forum, placing mothers alongside daughters, we are privy not only to the dynamics of mother-daughter relationships but how that plays out within the context of friendship. Laden with emotional charge, this scene explores teenage drama with wit, comedy, and sensitivity. Hustvedt masterfully reveals the undercurrents of tension, anxiety, and hormones.
In her insightful commentary on this scene, Mia concludes that girls will be “gentle, nurturing, sweet, passive, conniving, stealthy, mean.” This is all true. However, by the novel’s conclusion, Hustvedt demonstrates that women can be one more thing: strong.