Northfield native and novelist Siri Hustvedt is serious, especially about weighty issues like the nature of personal identity.
She’s a serious scholar. She graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from St. Olaf College, and earned a PhD in English literature from Columbia University.
She’s a serious writer. Primarily known as a novelist—author of The Blindfold (1992), The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), and The Enchantment of an American (2006,) among others—she is also a poet and prolific writer of essays. In 2010, she published an autobiographical nonfiction book that delves deeply into the intersection of psychiatry and neuroscience.
Fortunately, her newest novel—The Summer Without Men—grapples with gargantuan matters such as madness, marital collapse, teenage bullying and aging with a light, playfully comedic touch.
A change of pace
Mia Frederickson, Husvedt’s alter-ego in this latest fictional foray, is having a heavy-duty dark night of the soul.
The moderately misanthropic professor of poetry is committed to a mental institution after her husband of 30 years—a renowned neuroscientist whom we never meet—asks for a “pause” in the marriage. That her seemingly solid New York City marriage and lifestyle might end rattles the foundations of Mia’s carefully constructed reality.
Following her release from the hospital, she returns to the prairie town of her childhood (which Northfielders will recognize, though it’s here named “Bonden”), ostensibly for a rest and a respite from big city demands. But as she rages and rants alone in a rented house, bemoaning her fate and doubting her own sanity, she is gradually drawn into the lives of those around her. With their help, she begins to re-examine her life and redefine herself.
The cast of characters includes Mia’s widowed mother and her friends at a local nursing home. Self-dubbed the Five Swans, the nonagenarian cadre deals with aging and loss is strange and sundry ways: discussions of Jane Austen novels, creating sexually subversive needlepoint and running away from home. Mia’s next-door neighbor is a level-headed young woman with two small children and an explosive, verbally abusive husband. And there is the posse of pubescent girls in her poetry workshop at the Arts Guild whose plotting and cruelty to one of their own could rewrite Minnesota’s laws against bullying.
Mia’s summer becomes a narrative intertwined with her neighbors’ dramas, her own perorations on suffering, the nature of relationships, and the significance of gender difference—woven together with narrative, Mia’s poetry, and her correspondence with her daughter Daisy and unseen husband Boris.
Completing the cast are a screwball cyber-stalker named Mr. Nobody, who provides a running counterpoint to the overly intellectual poet, and her New York City psychiatrist, Dr. S, who calms Mia’s rages long distance and reassures her that “blowing up is not the same as breaking down, and breaking down can have its purpose.”
In the space of her summer sojourn, Mia finds she has made a meaningful journey through all her pain and confusion, having released her lockstep addiction to her roles as mother, professor and sophisticated city dweller to roll with a natural rhythm of moods more in sync with nature.
Her milk-fed Minnesota neighbor rues that she lacks Mia’s intellectual rigor and erudition, yet the alliance between laid-back madonna and prickly intellectual empowers both women in ways they could not have foreseen. From her mother and the Swans Mia learns not to leave the grieving process incomplete, lest the sins of the mothers be passed on, ricocheting around another generation.
Mia steers her poetry pupils using the power of telling stories to cleanse and purify:
One student is being savagely and systematically bullied by the others, which evokes buried memories of her own pubescent persecution. Rather than relying on institutions sanctions designed to identify and punish the offenders, Mia guides the group in crafting a composite narrative of the events in question. The hurts of victim and persecutors alike are revealed and a healing process begun.
Author Hustvedt is no stranger to the issue of healing from cataclysmic mental and emotional events. In her 2010 book, The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves, she wrote of her own experience with a mysterious seizure-like disorder that disrupted her book tours and baffled psychiatrists and neuroscientists alike. Weary with clinical language that labeled and categorized—but did not explain—her illness, Husvedt became a relentless autodidact, teaching herself about the intersection of selfhood and science, and volunteering at a New York mental hospital, sharing what she’s learned:
The best way to resuscitate a battered soul is by writing one’s own story and sharing it in a supportive environment. Only this, Husvedt believes, helps one muster the courage and compassion necessary to mold the pieces back into something livable.
Not convinced? Spending a leisurely summer afternoon with The Summer Without Men will provide all the proof you need.