Tuck and HustvedtPosted: April 16, 2012
There is a stack of books on my desk glaring at me. Seven books to be exact. All deserving a much better review than I am about to give them. But in order to move forward – I’ve waited too long – here we go with a first round of bookish thoughts to clear away two books:
I read Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men almost in tandem with Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness and so the two books are linked in my mind. There are some notable similarities between them. First, the timeline factor – Hustvedt’s book is about one single summer in the narrator’s life while Tuck’s is about a single night. Second, both books offer somewhat controversial endings. And third, both books are concerned with reviewing a marriage. I Married You for Happiness is about the night the narrator’s husband dies unexpectedly. She sits with him for that one night and thinks back over their thirty-some years together. For Hustvedt, narrator Mia’s “Summer Without Men” comes about because of her husband’s infidelity and so they separate for several months as each works out what has happened.
I discussed I Married You for Happiness with my book group last month, and the book improved upon discussion. I enjoyed the book on my own while reading it but I overall a little ambivalent. Much of what Nina, the narrator, remembers is unpleasant—the unhappy moments in her marriage, for example, or moments when she failed him or he failed her—and she paints her husband in a somewhat unfavorable light. Not that this is automatic grounds for my not liking the book. On the contrary, I liked the unexpected nature of what she chooses to remember and discuss and what it says about her and especially “our” expectations of a successful marriage. At the same time, however, Nina’s negativity distorts a little how I perceived and experienced her grieving.
In the book, Nina’s husband was a mathematician and Tuck uses this bit of information to filter the narrator’s memories through certain mathematical constructs and ideas. Albeit a tiny bit gimmicky, this was one of the most interesting parts of the book. I say gimmicky because I feel that certain scientific ideas (i.e. quantum physics) get a lot of play outside the realm of hard science and not always correctly. There is something very romantic about quantum physics and difficult math, but we don’t always understand exactly what we’re transposing into a metaphor used in another discipline. So I was wary of Tuck’s project in that sense, but I should say that she doesn’t ever go too far. Nina isn’t a mathematician or a physicist and she doesn’t understand much of what her husband often talked about. This is perhaps something she regrets; at least she is fixated on his inner life and how she negotiated it or matched it to hers at the moment of his death.
The science idea Tuck uses the most is Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat-in-the-box thought experiment, which is essentially about the nature of observation and reality. She does something interesting with this idea at the end of the book – a “trick” that certainly divided the opinions in my book group.
All in all, I Married You for Happiness is a thoughtful book and one worth revisiting in ten or twenty years time, for example. It will undoubtedly affect readers differently at different stages of their life and I like that. The mark of a good book. Tuck’s writing is also quite lovely—easy but elegant. The book reads quickly and yet contains much to think about.
Writing style seems to be a good enough bridge then to cross over to The Summer Without Men. Hustvedt is a different kind of writer, although she isn’t directly opposite in terms of style. Her prose is not dense, but it is a little thicker than Tuck’s. If I weren’t afraid it would sound too negative, I would call it more academic.
In any case, The Summer Without Men throws quite a challenge at the reader with its premise. Mia’s husband Boris (husband of thirty years) asks for a separation because he has fallen in love with a young woman and wants to explore this new development. This news is so shocking to Mia that she ends up in the hospital with a kind of psychic collapse, where she stays for a week or so before coming around and heading back to her hometown for the summer. The book then details her grieving (how else can you call it?) as well as the relationships she makes while there – with her aging mother and mother’s friends living at an old folks home, with a group of teenage girls to whom she teaches poetry and with her next door neighbor, a young mother with a possibly abusive husband.
As you can see, the book attempts to embrace a woman’s entire timeline. In this, I think, it is incredibly successful. Mia’s discoveries about the lives of the older, widowed women, her negotiations with the teenagers, her support from and to the young mother next door are all really well done. Of course all of this is framed against her own understanding of herself in relationship with Boris and what it means that he has thrown her off. There is a lot of feminist thought in The Summer Without Men and never does she offer any cute or easy answers.
Now, when I say that the premise is a challenge, I say it because of the narrator’s break down and hospitalization and the fact that her husband of forty years, knowing how she suffered, continued with his affair. I knew that the book would ultimately involve the question of reconciliation and I knew that if she went back to him, I would probably hate the book. I will not reveal what happens, nor will I say how I felt about the ending. The book is good enough for all the other reasons mentioned above to withstand what might be controversial about the ending.