There are two tropes to check off in order to know you've arrived in a "woman's" novel. The first, of course, is the Big C. Just when the characters are getting together, along comes Cancer, often of the breast or cervix, to make a martyr out of someone. Siri Hustveldt's "The Summer Without Men" (Picador, 182 pages, $14) is free of cancer, substituting a brief bout with mental illness, but comes up with a strong second trope, the W.O.W. (Wonderful Old Woman). Here it is personified in Abigail, 85, whose years of "happy-wappy" embroidery is only a cover for the real work cleverly concealed beneath -- exquisitely stitched scenarios of surrealistic menace, sexuality and satire.
While a valid metaphor for repression -- of creativity, sexuality, intelligence -- the idea itself is a bit "happy-wappy." The truth is that most people, women especially, keep their individuality covered even deeper, revealed not by a secret blossoming of the creative impulse but by a sharp corner on a polite smile, over-plucked eyebrows, the occasional martyred sigh.
The admiring audience for Abigail's crypto-subversive artwork has, herself, put a toe in the dark side: the narrator poet Mia Frederickson, who is summering in her hometown to heal from a psychotic break brought on by her husband's desertion for a younger woman. So far, so Oprah, but there's a vibrant book of essays trying to bust its way out of this predictable narrative.
Siri Hustveldt is no middle-aged chick-lit writer; she's an intelligent and lively thinker, and any phenomenon she illuminates glows with clarity. She's much better, and oddly more emotionally honest, when dealing with philosophy, literature and science than she is with issues that bedevil the adults and children her narrator encounters. Interspersed with the tale of Frederickson's healing summer are her musings on knowledge and sex. She describes how the two come together in the library, whose very dimness and maze of shelves suggest the hidden. What starts out as an anonymous Internet flame morphs into a lively discussion of Sartre and Camus, Kant and Kierkegaard, all direct, free of academic language and engaging.
The problem, then, with Hustveldt's fifth novel lies not in its characters or prose, but in the narrative itself. It never transcends the expected. Frederickson has the usual valid doubts about her personal and professional life:
"My poems were ... a waste. ... I had read my way not to knowledge but into an inscrutable oblivion. ... I, not Boris, was to blame. ... Now, menopausal, abandoned, bereft and forgotten, I had nothing left." The problem is that these general adjectives aren't bolstered with specifics sharp enough to make us wince. Her husband is clearly on his way back to her, her daughter -- an actress named Daisy -- sends her concerned yet perky e-mails almost daily, the meanness she encounters in her home is too easily overcome and the "four swans" -- her mother's group of 80-year-old friends -- dispense sassy wisdom with every utterance.
None of this is bad, just ordinary. What's expected from a writer with Hustveldt's intellectual pedigree -- a person whose knowledge includes cognitive neuroscience and seemingly all of Western poetry -- is something tougher, challenging, original, something that dares to look at old patterns in a new, perhaps even disturbing, light.
Instead she delivers what's basically a literary "Terms of Endearment" -- a movie-ready novel whose last words aren't "The End" but "Fade to Black." It's as if Hustveldt knew what she was doing, but did it anyway.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."