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The Summer Without Men
By Siri Hustvedt
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
I will admit that I can be very smug. I've been obsessively immersed in books for so long now that I tend to have opinions on everything literary, founded or un-. So of course I had an opinion about Siri Hustvedt, wife of Paul Auster, posed kind of ridiculously in her author photo, with her black turtleneck and piercing stare, writer of--what? I'm not sure what I thought she wrote, mainstream-ish fiction for smart moms, maybe? Stuff like The Time Traveler's Wife or The Memory Keeper's Daughter or anything by Jodi Picoult, where it's all plangent and emotional but in a kind of self-absorbed way, and has meaty characters but predictable plots full of poignancy and exquisite misery. Or something. I haven't read those other books either, so who knows, I could be wrong about them too. Anyway, I'd been sure that the books Siri wrote were not ones I'd necessarily scorn, but also not anything I was in a hurry to pick up.
And I will further admit that I often let my preconceptions become self-fulfilling prophesies. So when I started this book and realized it was going to be about a bunch of girls--a middle-aged cuckoldee, a handful of widows in an old-folks' home, a passel of tweens in a poetry class, a young mother and her voluble, bewigged toddler--I wasn't really thrilled. Those are obvious choices of people to write about, over-tilled ground, seemingly automatically ready to go off into clichéd, sentimental territory, where everyone teaches each other valuable life lessons by sharing pain and going through trauma and coming out stronger on the other side.
And it's true, in some ways that's what happened. But oh, Siri charmed me. She wooed me and impressed me and dragged me over to her side. She's super smart, but subtle about it, not cloying or show-offy like the hipster kids I so adore (Marisha Pessl, Benjamin Kunkel, et al.). She weaves the many narratives deftly, with a really mature and intentional sense of pacing. Her language is lovely. She spatters the narrative with all kinds of musings--on psychology, philosophy, physiology, history, literature--which are all actually relevant, if not to the actual plot, than to the mind of the narrator, whose thoughts we spend the whole novel navigating. Lots of the book is in fact about other books--there are book club meetings and poetry classes and quite a lot of reading and musing on reading. She also does this cool thing where she subverts her own use of bad clichés by having the narrator then actually picture the cliché to diffuse it, which I surprisingly really loved. And she's got some good meta-ness too, some breaking of the fourth wall and earnestly addressing the reader, taking us by the hand or blindfolding us or otherwise revealing her own machinations before she performs them, thus further distancing her from the sentimental, heavily plotted pabulum that I'd been afraid I was in for.
I'm not saying the book was without flaws. Certainly not all the characters are as full as they could be--the seven tweens were virtually indistinguishable to me, even after repeated mentions of this or that trait assigned to one or the other--but that's not unfitting for the plot arc they were involved in, which was one of shifting narratives, fluid identities, tweenagerhood as a many-headed beast rather than a selection of individuals. And the old ladies were seemingly ranked in order of importance to the narrator, and assigned characterizations accordingly--but isn't that a bit like life? You don't know everything about all your mom's friends; you know a few interesting things about the ones you find interesting. And then also she did this weird amateur thing (which I can't believe her publisher let her get away with, actually) where instead of using italics for emphasis she used ALL CAPS, like some shouting internet commenter, which was totally bizarre and made me cringe every time and probably wouldn't bother people who aren't copyeditors but still is just wrong.
But on the whole, this was a really engaging book, very smart, very full. I'm trying to say that I was wrong, okay? I'm allowing myself to loosen my grip on a deeply held conviction and admit fault. Aren't you proud of me? Just don't expect me to pick up Lovely Bones anytime soon.
Out of 10: 8