“The summer without men” is the story of Mia, a 58-year old prize-winning poet and university professor, is told by her husband of 30 years, Boris, that he wants a ‘pause’. The ‘pause’ is a 30 year younger French researcher working at her husband’s lab. Mia’s first reaction is to suffer a temporary mental breakdown, but some weeks after the initial collapse she is released and decides to go home to Bonden, Minnesota, where she grew up. Her mother, a widow for many years, still lives there, though these days she resides in an assisted living facility for the elderly where she has formed a bookclub with 4 other widows. While old and frail, the “5 swans” are mentally agile and each have an interesting life behind them, particularly 96-year old Abigail who has stiched hidden messages and nude figures into seemingly innocent stichwork for years – Mia is the first person let in on her secret.
Mia also makes the aquaintance of the young woman living next door. She is struggling to raise her baby son and toddler daugther Flora because her husband Pete is largely absent due to work, and when he occasionally does come home, screaming and shouting ensue. Add to this the 6 teenage girls Mia teaches in poetry class, then all stages of a woman’s life cycle are represented in this book.
I think this is a little gem of a book. Beatifully written, it is a story that explores a common human drama in an uncommon way. While the story focuses on Mia, her thoughts and inner life, it shows her pain, grief and doubts without in any way vilifying men. This story is skilfully woven into a greater exploration of the different stages of a woman’s life, from the toddler and teenager through motherhood and marriage on to old age. “The summer without men” is my first encounter with Siri Hustvedt, but it definitely won’t be the last.