The Summer Without Men, by Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre, RRP£14.99, 216 pages
Fiction relies on a baffling alchemy. At some point in the narrative, and with the best of books from the very beginning, a story the author cheerfully, even formally, concedes is invented seems actually to have happened. Through the aegis of our eagerness to be fooled, confabulated characters walk about in our heads with the authority of our own friends and relatives. It’s a wonderful and mysterious process, one I don’t pretend to understand. But sometimes it doesn’t work.
Siri Hustvedt is an intelligent, intuitive, talented writer whose previous books I’ve admired. She has impressively distinguished herself in her own right, emerging from the shadow of her literary luminary husband, Paul Auster. Yet her new novel, The Summer Without Men, never comes alive, never magically transforms from construct to vibrant drama. I don’t buy it.
The narrator, Mia Fredrickson, has taken refuge in her hometown of Bonden, Minnesota, where her mother still lives, after her husband, Boris, infatuated with a younger French siren, has requested a “pause” in their 30-year marriage. Following a bout of temporary insanity that landed her in the loony bin, Mia licks her wounds over “the Pause” – a nice touch; the other woman is never dignified with a name – while consorting with her mother’s spry, elderly friends and teaching a poetry class for catty pubescent girls.
Both her husband’s spare e-mails and their daughter Daisy keep her apprised of the progress of Boris’s love affair back in New York. Mia rages when Boris and the Pause move in together, then has to take the measure of her feelings about reunion when the extracurricular relationship goes predictably south. Meanwhile, the girls in the poetry class gang up on one of their number in a typically female fashion.
Indeed, aside from Boris, who remains off camera throughout, the novel has a nearly all-female cast – not a bad idea. But it remains an idea. The seven, girls in Mia’s poetry class blend in a jumble of names; I found it nigh impossible to keep straight who’s who. Although it’s refreshing for a novel to sponsor a group of women in their eighties and nineties, the “five Swans”, Mia’s mother and her care home friends, also blur into a geriatric gaggle. The one exception, Abigail, knits hidden erotica into seemingly anodyne jumpers and tea cosies, distinguishing her from the pack. Otherwise it’s a bit of a relief when one of the old girls dies: one fewer name to keep track of.
Nice lines do surface. On the very first page, Mia describes having become a lunatic “whose thoughts burst, ricocheted, and careened into one another like popcorn kernels in a microwave bag” – a charming, effective image that gets one’s hopes up. Yet other passages are distancing in their abstraction and, though cloaked in the locution of wisdom, self-evident and flat: “Time confounds us, doesn’t it? The physicists know how to play with it, but the rest of us must make do with a speeding present that becomes an uncertain past and, however jumbled that past may be in our heads, we are always moving inexorably toward an end.”
Still, this novel’s primary problem is that it feels made up. We can almost hear the author creaking into the desk chair for another yeoman-like day’s work. I did not believe that Mia ever experienced temporary insanity, for her bout in a mental hospital comes across as a lark – or worse, mere words on the page. I did not believe in Mia, whose name also feels made-up, perhaps chosen only to deploy the anagram, “I am”, mid-novel.
I did not believe in her marriage, so it was impossible to have any feelings about its survival or demise. I didn’t believe that Boris is a neuroscientist; that is, I perceived his profession as chosen solely in order to justify some longish, extraneous reflections about the neurological differences between male and female brains. I did not believe in any of those seven little girls in the poetry class, nor in the unoriginal meanness they get up to; I became convinced that the author herself must have required a computer-side crib sheet, with which to remember that Peyton is the tall, skinny one, while Nikki and Joan are plump, and Nikki is the dominant of the duo.
The Summer Without Men is slight, but many short novels punch above their weight. Think Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier or Philip Roth’s Everyman, each consisting of 192 pack-a-wallop pages. Admittedly, Hustvedt aspires to a formal lightness here, inserting poetry, whimsical drawings, and disconcertingly hysterical capitalisations (“each sex has its own KIND of MIND”), and her bouncy brevity might have produced a winning tale if only the prose were funny. It isn’t.
So this novel fails to trigger that old cliché, “the willing suspension of disbelief”. The volume simply sits there: paper, ink and sentence constructions. But look on the bright side. Consider how astonishing it is that so many other novels – even, sometimes, rather mediocre ones – seem actually to have happened.
Lionel Shriver’s latest novel ‘So Much for That’ (HarperCollins) is released in paperback this spring