The Summer Without Men: Siri Hustvedt (Day five of the review challenge)

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We’re halfway through the ten day review challenge and despite slowly running out of books to review I’m still on track to complete my goal of a review a day. Today’s book comes from my recent sign up to Newcastle Under Lyme library which is something I’ve been meaning to do for months. Despite living a five minute wander away I’ve managed to avoid it; until this weekend. The reason for signing up is because a number of my 101 things in 1001 days require me to read books that I don’t yet own. Now I would happily purchase said books however most surfaces around my room are already littered with them and only renting a bedroom in a pokey terraced house means there’s very little space to stash them. Typical Lizzy I still came home with a stack of books and this was one of them! I was supposed to post this up yesterday but due to my internet failure’s it refused to post so this is still yesterday’s just posted a little late! Enjoy.

“And who among us would deny Jane Austen her happy endings or insist that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne should get back together at the end of The Awful Truth? 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.” Mia Fredrickson, the wry, vituperative, tragic comic, poet narrator of The Summer Without Men, has been forced to re-examine her own life. One day, out of the blue, after thirty years of marriage, Mia’s husband, a renowned neuroscientist, asks her for a “pause.” This abrupt request sends her reeling and lands her in a psychiatric ward. The June following Mia’s release from the hospital, she returns to the prairie town of her childhood, where her mother lives in an old people’s home. Alone in a rented house, she rages and fumes and bemoans her sorry fate. Slowly, however, she is drawn into the lives of those around her—her mother and her close friends,“the Five Swans,” and her young neighbor with two small children and a loud angry husband—and the adolescent girls in her poetry workshop whose scheming and petty cruelty carry a threat all their own.

During the ten days of reviews I appear to have picked the most diverse and contrasting stories possible. This novel follows the story of Mia, who’s husband decides he wants a pause. Said pause being a clever, French twenty years his junior female, with shiny brown hair. The pause of her relationship propels Mia into a spectacular breakdown causing a brief stint in a psychiatric ward. Once feeling a little better, she travels back to her childhood home of Minnesota for a summer recuperation and during this Mia recovers through the time spent with her dear elderly mother, the swans, and by teaching a group of pubescent teenagers poetry whilst she contemplates said ‘pause.’

Visiting and staying in the apartments resided in by the elderly residents as like her mother, Mia becomes as like a child to the older ladies affectionately named the swans. Living with the distinguished ladies who have long outlived their husbands Mia begins to learn from each of them respectively. Mia relives each of the stages of her life through the different people she meets along her journey of recovery. She relives the memories of her childhood through Flora the little girl next door, the movement between childhood and womanhood through the class she teaches poetry, which also uncovers the bullying nature of the girls taking her right back to her teenage days and finally the swans and the final waiting stage in life. Mia throughout describes her mental health as a complete act of self absorption and through her new environment she finds herself waking from this and seeing the ‘immensity of the world’ again.

Identity is the word to describe this book; the different stages of life we each discover as we travel through the difficult journey of self identity. Mia is a poet throughout describing each change in a deeply sensitive and self reflective train of thought. Despite the subject of the book mainly encompassing the inevitable arrival of death it is an effortlessly written and deeply enjoyable read. A jumble of emotions, memories, snatches of poetry and emotional moments of self understanding and reflection it is both morbid and enlightening in equal measures.

The writing style is beautifully constructed, slightly old fashioned and at times slightly unhinged but we get a true understanding of what it feels like to truly look at our lives. The characters are well built in terms of characteristics, Mia is so honest with the reader, there is nothing left untouched, nothing to question. Her mother is dear and equally delightful. I loved the description of the older ladies as swans; elegant, graceful and full of wisdom, it suited these ladies perfectly. Overall it is a story of self-discovery and the limits of identity. The book fully explores the way our identity transforms and the way it changes as we experience others and their pasts, hopes and dreams. The pause is the start but it is the ripples that spread that truly alter the way Mia looks at her life. A wonderful read.

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4 Comments

  1. February 18, 2015 / 1:07 pm

    Ah I love Siri Hustvedt’s books. I have her latest on the TBR.

    • February 19, 2015 / 12:53 pm

      Do you have any others by her you would recommend? 🙂

      • February 19, 2015 / 4:09 pm

        Well my very favourite one (though its quite different from the one you have read is ‘What I Loved’ which is about art and lots of other things. I also really liked The Shaking Woman, which is an autobiographical account of how a neurological dysfunction impacted on her, and she on it – I love books about the philosophy of illness and the brain/mind debate, which this was all about.

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