book review: the summer without men

I’ve always meant to get around to reading Siri Hustvedt because I knew I would like her—and I was right. I haven’t read any reviews of this book so I’m making some assumptions that may or may not be true, but this seems to be memoir loosely disguised as fiction. Or what I mean is, there seem to be lots of elements that I think are true of Hustvedt’s own life—the protagonist is a poet, she has had a spell of mental illness, she has a daughter, she lives in New York. I know Hustvedt is/was Paul Auster’s partner—I’m not sure if they are still together or whether the break-up documented in this book is about her and Auster but ANYWAAAAY . . . When the husband of fifty-something Mia runs off with a younger woman, she takes refuge for the summer in the town where her mother lives. She gradually emerges from her grief at the loss of her husband through her deepening involvement in the lives of the women she comes into contact with during this summer without men. First there is her own mother who lives in sheltered accommodation and has formed a group of female friends, all long-widowed, who continue to pursue their love of books and art and conversation despite the decay of their bodies and the looming threat of senility and death. Then there is her young next door neighbour with an abusive husband, two babies, and a dream of becoming a jewellery designer. There is also the group of thirteen-year-old girls, bound by fluctuating friendships and rivalries, to whom Mia teaches poetry once a week.

While each of these groups of women, and Mia herself, have their own story arc, the book is more of a meditation on womanhood than a plot-driven work of fiction. The stories of the various women are interspersed with Mia’s poems, philosophical and feminist musings, and even little sketches and doodles. Funny that a book that deals with themes such as bullying, domestic violence, marital infidelity, mental illness, aging, and death should be uplifting and inspiring, but it was—because she writes about these archetypal experiences truthfully and beautifully and that’s why we read—isn’t it?—for the comfort of knowing that our experiences are universal.

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