"The Summer Without Men" (Picador), by Siri Hustvedt: Mia Fredricksen, the poet narrator of "The Summer Without Men," has moved back to the town where she grew up after her husband, Boris, announces he wants to put their 30-year marriage on "pause." He is having an affair with a woman 20 years younger than Mia. The shock of his announcement precipitates a nervous breakdown, and the novel _ the fifth by the talented writer Siri Hustvedt _ recounts how she knits herself back together during a sultry Minnesota summer. Central to her recovery are her elderly mother, her mother's friends, a young mother next door with two small children, and the teenage girls in a poetry class who remind her of her own painful youth.
Although a psychotic break might seem like an extreme reaction, Mia is exceptional in almost every way. She senses an invisible presence on the other side of her front door; if she hears a metaphor such as "two peas in a pod," she sees the round, green vegetable. At one point, her mother tells her, "I always thought you felt too much, that you were overly sensitive, a princess on the pea."
Despite her fragile state of mind at the beginning of the novel, Mia, whose name can also spell "I am," should not be underestimated. Her voracious reading of literature, philosophy and science _ and favorite excerpts are sprinkled throughout _ has led her to a hard-won equanimity. She is also blessed with empathy, irony and a healthy dose of feminist outrage at the way women's minds and bodies are routinely devalued. These qualities, combined with an almost surreal sensitivity to her environment, lead to an oddly satisfying conclusion in which love and sanity prevail.
Hustvedt, who has suffered from migraines and their associated sensory disturbances since childhood, is the author of "The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves," a memoir about a seizure disorder she developed in 2004. Her recent interest in brain science shows up here _ Boris and his paramour are both neuroscientists _ but ultimately the story belongs to poet Mia, with her fanciful imagination, razor-sharp observations and captivating way with words.
Although Hustvedt's self-conscious narrative devices, including directly addressing the reader, may at times make you wish she would just tell the story, her finely wrought descriptions of everything from maternal love to mean girls and marital sex make this slim volume well worth reading.