Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Hustvedt Siri, Novel > That summer could have been without us as well

That summer could have been without us as well

January 12, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt 2011 French title : Un été sans les hommes.

Hustvedt_EteWhat does an avid reader do when two people whose opinion she respects have an opposite vision of a book written by a writer she likes? She reads the book herself to make up her mind. This is how I came to The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt. Caroline didn’t like it. Someone else loved it. So what’s the verdict? I have to admit that like Caroline, I wonder what happened to Siri Hustvedt.

In this novel, Mia, 50ish, spends the summer in her hometown in Minnesota. Her husband has asked for a Pause in their marriage after 30 years together and she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. For her husband, the Pause has the form of a French young woman (talk about cliché) and for her it means recovering from a major nervous breakdown. So Mia is there, near her mother, connecting with a young neighbour, teaching poetry to a group of teenagers and spending time with old ladies. Ah, yes, because Mia is a Poet while her husband is a scientist. Talk about cliché again.

With a bit of imagination and a good dose of humour, it could be a good scenario but the way it is written kills everything. I didn’t believe in any of the characters and frankly, I didn’t feel any empathy for Mia. Her constant references to poets or philosophers irritated me. I’m not well-read in poetry and philosophy and the few poets I know are almost all French. So I didn’t get the references and I felt left behind. I hate it when writers show off their culture and leave readers behind. If they use other writers for their story, it needs to be subtle or at least bring some depth to the book. Here, none of this happened. I have to give some credit to French publishers: the silliness of the cover captures well the silliness of the novel.

I’m not a very patient person and I couldn’t finish it. So yes, Caroline, you’re right, this book is utterly disappointing. If you’ve never read Siri Hustvedt, I suggest you start with The Enchantment of Lily Dahl and stay away from this one.

  1. January 12, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Well, I think I’ll pass on that. I’m fine with books being packed with references, but when done poorly (as in Kerrigan in Copenhagen for example which you’ve sort of reminded me of) it can be particularly grating.

    I think it works where it’s part of a conversation between equals, equal books I mean. So, if a writer is great and references other great writers then even if inaccessible that may be very successful as it can create a dialogue between different works. When done as an exercise in showing the writer’s credentials though, how well-read they are, that’s just tedious.

    A lightweight book referencing great books doesn’t gain weight by association, it just shows its own shallowness. That’s the danger in referencing the greats – for it to work the book referencing them has to be able to sit in their company.

    Give me ambitious literature, give me pure entertainment, but don’t give me entertainment dressed in borrowed intellectual clothes so that I’m neither stretched nor amused.


    • January 12, 2014 at 11:37 pm

      I thought about this book when I read your review of Kerrigan in Copenhagen.

      I agree with you.
      The name dropping is irritating. Either it goes further and it serves a purpose (like two characters discussing something) but here it felt like a crutch to Mia’s thought process. Perhaps it’s a good idea, it could be a way to show how this woman who has lost it tries to retain her sanity by hanging on to literary and philosophical references. If this was the writer’s intention, she failed because of her style.


  2. January 13, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Nice review, Emma. I had earlier read Caroline’s review of this book and so when I saw that you had read it, I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it and finding out whether you would feel differently about it. Sorry to know that you too didn’t like the book. I normally like books with a lot of poetical and philosophical references and even historical references, but I am not sure I will like this book. I like the fact that the French title is an exact translation of the English one. Sometimes I find that the English title of French or German books is very different from the original. Your comment on the French cover made me smile 🙂


    • January 13, 2014 at 10:09 pm

      The French title is very often the exact translation of the original one. When it’s obvious they keep the English title (Like The Blonde for example)
      I was disappointed not to like it and I couldn’t even finish it although it’s a slim book. I know the signs now: when I start doing anything else to avoid reading a book, it means it’s time to abandon it.


  3. January 13, 2014 at 10:43 am

    I was pretty sure you wouldn’t like it. Hustvedt is one of my favourite writers but here she’s really gone off the rail. I got most of her references and it didn’t make it better but worse. She does write essays and they are dense but interesting and thought-provoking, this was just blah. Anything that’s gratuitous in a book – violence, sex, knowledge is juts pure bad writing. And that’s maybe the worst eher. The writing was bland as well.
    I’m very glad I still have The Sorrows of an American because I’m sure that’s going to make me like her again. If this had been my first of her novels . . .


    • January 13, 2014 at 10:10 pm

      I don’t know what came over her for this one. Which other one would you recommend?


  4. January 13, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Well the premise sounds interesting which explains why I bought this one.


    • January 13, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      I’m curious to read your thoughts about it.


  5. Brian Joseph
    January 15, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I think that some of the greatest writers who ever lived had some duds. I guess that is the problem when reading lots of books that a single person has written.

    Thanks for the recommendation as to where to begin with Hustvedt. Though I have not read anything by her, she sounds like a worthwhile author.


    • January 15, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      You’re right, you’re bound to stumble upon a bad one among the lot. (still, it’s not happened yet with Philip Roth)


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