Monday, 9 May 2011

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt

What better time to read a novel about a nervous breakdown after a forced Break with your hubby, than when I myself am separated from my better half? Siri Hustvedt's latest novel is a joyous read, a study of gender and identity, and an assurance that things are going to be ok.

Mia Fredricksen, a semi-successful poet, finds her life come crashing down when her husband wants a Break, or more concretely, a much younger, French colleague. After a short stay at a mental fascility, Mia is back to normal, but decides to visit her hometime, Bonden, for the summer. Despite her early conviction that she will be unable to stop thinking about her husband, life in Bonden keeps her occupied and gives her new insight.

Different groups of women become central in Mia's life in Bonden. Her mother and her friends at the old age home are one of these groups. Mia admires and connects with these women who all have survived their husbands' deaths, and who are determined to go on living and as well as they can, because, after all, my life is just wind. Gone too quickly.

Another group is the tween girls who attend poetry classes Mia teaches. The group dynamic forces Mia to confront her own past, and take a stand in a situation that quickly goes from bad to worse. When one of the girls is frozen out of the group, Mia makes them all write the narrative of events from the others' perspective, until all of them have written the story as seen by X, Y and Z. In the metafictional tradition, Mia concludes that the girls have now written the story of what happens they can all agree on. It might not be the story of what actually happened, but it is the story they can live with.

The last group is the family next door. We never get to know much about the husband, other than that he shouts and slams doors. Lola, the wife, is in her mid twenties and mother of a baby boy and a girl of around four. Mia's friendship with Lola and her children become important pieces in Mia's narrative, where she explores the role of women versus men, identity, both in groups and in a marriage, and growing older and taking on new roles as you do.

Roles and identity are very important themes in this novel. Mia constantly returns to a notion of repetition (virgin, mother, old woman), and we can clearly see the connection between Mia's own past, and the issues in her tween group now; Lola's fresh motherhood, and Mia's experience of being a mother herself, and the inevitability of aging, embodied in Mia's mother and her friends, some of which pass away in the course of the summer.

Identity is also connected to hiding yourself. Lola's daugther insists on wearing a large wig, and refuses to part with it, perhaps to hide herself from her parents' fighting. The tween girls all hide in numbers, or dress their poetry in the words of the Classics (Brontë, Dickens, etc). Mia herself is confronted with being identified as her husband's wife, rather than as a person in her own right. Gender becomes extremely problematic. In the older generation, Mia's mother's friend Abigail reveals her own secret delights in her own artwork. Despite having been an independent woman for years, Abigail considers her work to be to wild to display openly, and Mia is one of the trusted few who is ever shown the secret to her artwork.

Identity is also strongly connected to family, and heritage. You are who you are partly because of where you come from. Mia realises that the experiences from her parents have affected her in her married life, and that her husband has also brought with him his parents into their marriage.

In amongst all these issues, Mia is also concerned with her mental health, and notions of a presence, as if someone is "almost there", even if she can't see this person. On a more concrete level, she receives strange emails from (Mr?) Nobody, who at first criticises her, but gradually goes over to challenging Mia on an intellectual level, and in many ways perhaps proving to Mia that she has thoughts and opinions in her own right, separate to that of her esteemed husband.

Throughout the summer, Mia and her husband keep in touch, and Mia does not try to hide that she still loves him. What is refreshing, however, is that the narrative is far from a sulky "my husband left me"-story, but rather a story of love that comes from having an identity that blends so closely with your husband, and of trying to forge a life for yourself despite this. Mia's remark about the tween girls' conflict, that they now have found a story they can all live with, ecchoes in my mind as a possible key to Mia's own mind. Is she (and her husband) trying to find the story they can both agree on?

The Summer Without Men has been a perfect read for my state of mind, as I’ve had to come to terms with enjoying life despite missing my better half. However, this is a novel that has a much broader appeal than merely working as a pick-me-up. Mia makes a point of the fact that the vast majority of novel readers are women, and there seems to be little doubt that Siri Hustvedt considers women to be her main audience. That being said, men could learn a lot by reading this book.

In all, The Summer Without Men is an intelligent journey into life after love, a refreshing look at gender and identity, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Mia's voice is smart but playful, and she keeps the reader interested and engaged to the very end.

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