One of my very good friends and I have made a pact – should we find ourselves elderly and alone, we’re going to be flatmates. The plan came about when I was talking about my grandmother. She had resisted a move to a retirement village many years before and at age 89, had few friends still alive and was lonely. My friend (who is an occupational therapist and often works with elderly people) and I decided that there were many benefits in living with someone in your twilight years, aside from the obvious
4pm gin-and-tonics-and-Gossip-Girl-sessions companionship (think financial, security, health benefits). We’ve already thought through some details (while we still have all our marbles).
Which brings me to The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt. It’s the story of women who find themselves ‘alone’, albeit in different ways. At the centre is Mia, a poet who has left her husband after discovering he was having an affair, or as he termed it, a ‘pause’ –
“Sometime after he said the word pause, I went mad and landed in the hospital. 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 whose thoughts burst, ricocheted, and careened into one another like popcorn kernels in a microwave bag.”
Mia, after a brief nervous breakdown, returns to her hometown, where her mother lives in a retirement village.
“Sitting across from her in the small apartment, I had the thought that my mother was a place for me as well as a person.”
Mia is soon drawn into the lives of those around her—her mother and her close friends (known as “the Five Swans”); her young neighbor Lola, with two small children and a loud angry husband; and a group of adolescent girls in a poetry workshop she’s running for the summer.
“…the Five shared a mental toughness and autonomy that gave them a veneer of enviable freedom.”
‘Alone’ means different things to all of these women and exploring this idea is the most compelling part of the story. Although I could empathise with Mia and Lola’s characters (and honestly, their stories are not new), I was most interested in the Five Swans and the teenage girls, and the way that their stories shaped Mia. Sandwiched between the two groups, Mia observes how women can injure, bully and ostracize each other –
“…I began to sense an invisible undertow among the girls that made me uneasy. I knew that the real pull of this force took place before and after class, during the hours of their lives that had nothing to do with me, and that its dynamics were part of the necessary secrecy and alliances of early adolescence.”
Mia wonders something that I have also thought after observing the differences between boy’s and girl’s playground politics – ‘If girls banged each other over the head instead of plotting nasty little games of sabotage, would they suffer less?’
Hustvedt has a lovely turn of phrase (not surprisingly she is a published poet) and her writing is compelling.
“And yet he said pause, not stop, to keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind. A cruel crack of hope.”
“Libraries are sexual dream factories. The languor brings it on. The body must adjust its position – a leg crossed, a palm leaned upon, a back stretched – but the body is going nowhere. The reading and looking up from one’s reading brings it on; the mind leaves the book and meanders onto a thigh or an elbow, real or imagined. The gloom of the stacks brings it on with its suggestion of the hidden.”
“Not telling is as interesting as telling, I have found.”
“Look even at the little girls, at their grasping for status and admiration, at their ruthless tactics, at their aggressive joys.”
Hustvedt establishes so many layers in this relatively short novel, by comparing age, experience, loyalty and popularity. She does it beautifully, which is why I didn’t need her discourse on philosophical, scientific, literary, and psychiatric subjects to justify the narrative. And some of it was in CAPS AS IF THE READER MIGHT PERHAPS MISS THE POINT. That said, much of this detail is saved for the final chapters, by which point you’re invested in the story.
“Comedies end in marriage, tragedies in death. Otherwise they aren’t so different.”
3/5 It’s Heartburn meets The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood with embroidery and Freud thrown in but if you want Hustvedt at her thrilling best, start with What I Loved.
Surprisingly little food in this book although there is one reference to quiche. I love quiche. Here’s my favourite – salmon and asparagus quiche.