Hustvedt (The Shaking Woman, 2010, etc.) explores the Seven Ages of Woman.
Six, actually: No soldier here, though there’s ugly conflict among the schoolgirls taking poet Mia Fredricksen’s summer workshop. Mia has returned to Minnesota to recover from a breakdown brought on by her husband of 30 years saying that he wanted to take a “pause” in their marriage. She’s rented a house near the senior dwelling where her mother now lives in the “independent zone”; the greatest fear of 87-year-old Laura Fredericksen and her friends is to be reduced to the “care center,” where those sans everything (as Shakespeare put it) end up before they die. The child is 3-year-old Flora, whose mother Lola (the Bard’s lover turned childbearing woman) has a turbulent marriage of her own. Observing all these females in the various stages of life, Mia ponders her own middle-aged crisis. Will Boris get over “the Pause” (her sardonic name for his French girlfriend)? Does Mia even want him to? She’s become close to her mother’s 94-year-old friend Abigail, whose subversive handicrafts display images of rage and sexuality that speak to Mia of every frustration in her long marriage. It takes a while to get used to Mia’s habit of directly confiding in the reader, but most will come to relish Hustvedt’s 21st-century riff on the 19th-century Reader-I-married-him school of quietly insurgent women’s fiction. (Digressions about clueless male authorities’ views on female sexuality and brain structure are more off-putting, but tart comments on male vs. female styles of writing—and reading—novels are a delight.) The schoolgirls’ persecution of one of their number reminds us that men have no monopoly on cruelty, and the slow decline of Mia’s elderly friend forecasts the end that awaits us all. Yet the mood is surprisingly buoyant, as though a summer without men proves to be the vacation Mia needs.
Lighthearted but not lightweight—a smart, sassy reflection on the varieties of female experience.