Hustvedt is the thinking woman’s writer, arbiter of that netherworld between choice and feeling, an intellectual and fiercely honest historian of the female psyche. Mia Frederickson endures a short mental savagery after Boris, her husband of thirty years, demands a “pause” in their marriage (the “pause” is, of course, another woman). Her anguished soul yearns for comfort, so Mia heads for Minnesota, where her elderly mother is ensconced in independent living quarters. There she rents a small place for the summer (“the yawn between Crazed Winter and Sane Fall”) and agrees to teach a poetry class to seven thirteen-year-olds, befriending a neighboring family: Lola, Flora and baby Simon.
Mia spends her days drifting between her students and “The Five Swans,” as she calls her mother’s group of lady friends, from Georgiana, 102, to the physically-twisted form of Abigail, 94, Regina, 88, and Peg, 84, each woman a repository for profound life experiences, mates long-relegated to bittersweet stories: “It’s so bitter. Old age.” Her nights disturbed by the misery of her unresolved situation, Mia alternates between grief, rage, confusion and the dark abyss of abandonment, jarred from the daily habits of marriage to this interim where Boris inhabits her dreams.
This is distinctly Hustvedt territory, a writer so deeply intuitive and curious that it is in her nature to explore, to disdain subterfuge. Mia is unsparing but not unloving or unlovable. It becomes impossible to view this character as victim; she may be chronically introspective, but such necessary tedium is tempered with bursts of transcendent poetry and an abundance of affection: “In a place like this, many people aren’t touched enough.” From the ancient Abigail, who hides pornographic scenes in her splendidly detailed stitchery, to little Flora, who clings to her Harpo Marx-like curly wig with hysterical determination, these characters sing of individuality and independence, the endless variety of the female psyche.
Mia navigates the dangerous shoals of this ragged coastline, the shipping lanes of a subconscious unmoored by a husband’s change of mind, leading her to question every relationship with the opposite sex from father to husband. In a bizarre counterbalance to the waning years of the Five Swans, the seven adolescents dabbling in poetry and the urgencies of self-promotion illustrate the treacherous rules of friendship, “my unformed little broads with their sadistic pleasure, the envy they sweated from their pores and their shocking lack of empathy.”
Hustvedt blends incisive observations with scathing honesty, fearless in pursuit of understanding, a balance between self-love and self-awareness that celebrates the essence of being female. The effluvia of life accumulate with the years, but Hustvedt remains an accurate chronicler of a woman’s journey: “We all smell of mortality. Perhaps there is nothing we can do except burst into song.”