“The transience of human feeling is nothing short of ludicrous,” muses the wry poet Mia early on in Siri Hustvedt’s elegant new novel, a smart and surprisingly amusing meditation on love, friendship and sexual politics. “My mercurial fluctuations in the course of a single evening made me feel as if I had a character made out of chewing gum.”
Mia is referring to how swiftly her mood shifted from morose to buoyant after a pleasant evening with a young neighbor. As so often happens on talky, aimless evenings, wine was a factor. But the simple delights of human connection are a force more potent than chardonnay.
The Summer Without Men explores and celebrates such alliances between women without ever losing its sense of humor. As Mia points out: “Shorn of intimacy and seen from a considerable distance, we are all comic characters.” Mia, 55 and mother of a grown daughter, is well aware of the painfully cliched nature of her torment: Her researcher husband Boris has requested a “pause” from their marriage that sent her reeling into a psychiatric ward. “He did not say I don’t ever want to see you again or It’s over, but after thirty years of marriage pause was enough to turn me into a lunatic.” He did, however, move in with a colleague 20 years younger than Mia (“French with limp but shiny brown hair”).
And so Mia heads to her tiny Minnesota hometown for the summer, to teach poetry to a gaggle of middle schoolers dipping their toes into the waters of adolescent cruelty and spend time with her aging but sharply observant mother, who lives in an assisted living facility and presides over “the Five Swans,” women fiercely determined to mine the best of their intellectual capacities while they still have them.
Author of four other novels, including What I Loved and The Sorrows of an American, Hustvedt clearly enjoys letting Mia vent her feminist screeds in hopes of transforming her broken heart into some blazing insight on the nature of men and women, yet she never allows Boris to completely turn into some terrible, disloyal, caddish creature despite his flaws. Hustvedt’s view roams wider than Mia’s wounds; she taps into poignant truths about women and life’s different stages, from the sly teenage tormentor in the poetry class to the elderly woman who hides wonderfully subversive images in her needlework. As for Mia and Boris: “[W]ho among us would deny Jane Austen her happy endings?” I might deny Boris any good cheer, but Hustvedt, ever generous toward the human animal, has different ideas.