“Sometime after he said the word pause, I went mad and landed in the hospital.” So begins Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Summer Without Men. “He” is Boris, renowned rat-scientist and husband of thirty years to Mia Friedricksen – poet, professor, mother, and central character in the story.
After her brief stay in a mental hospital, Mia leaves her Brooklyn home for the summer and returns to childhood hometown, a Minnesota backwater called Bonden, in hopes of putting herself back together and to give her husband his pause. In Bonden, she becomes acquainted with a Garrison Keillor Prairie’s worth of companions. The Swans: five widows who form the bedrock of bookclub at Rolling Meadows East, one of which is Mia’s mother. Seven teen girls for whom Mia agrees to teach a poetry workshop. Lola, the young mother next door, and her children.
Hustvedt is brilliant as she deftly mixes stories of these associates, phone conversations with her therapist, and email exchanges with the mysterious Mr. Nobody – and, later, with the Pauser himself – along with personal rants, memories, poems, philosophy, literary theory and criticism, and riffs on neuroscience. Mia uses all these tools to rediscover herself, and to both teach and learn from these experiences.
There is a good bit of gender philosophy throughout, but Hustvedt utilizes a humor throughout makes some of her sharp points significantly less painful. In short, we feel for these characters. We feel for Mia, and we see bits of her reflected in the lives of those she befriends; in her elderly friend, Abigail, with her lonely, private amusements; in the coven of girls learning to navigate relationships; in Lola’s rocky marriage.
The sheer number of characters can at times make it difficult to keep up with, and there were parts where I wish Hustvedt had told us more of the details of the story. That said, some of the best parts of the novel are not in the story proper, but in the fourth wall breaking asides to her Dear Reader, in the lengthy scientific and philosophic excursions, in the unusual and colorful word choices, and in the well placed quotes or poems. And despite any deficit in narrative, she does deliver a happy ending payoff (of sorts). After all, while the subject matter might be heavy, in its heart, this novel is a comedy. Because, as Mia says:
“There are tragedies and there are comedies, aren’t there? And they are often more the same than different, rather like men and women, if you ask me. A comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.”
Overall, a very re-readable novel.