After 30 years together, Mia’s husband Boris announces that he needs a “pause” in their marriage. This sends Mia off the deep end and she is locked up and medicated in a mental hospital for a week and a half. Once discharged, she realizes she can’t stay alone in her Brooklyn apartment, so she leaves to spend the summer in her Minnesota hometown where her mother is living in a senior community.
A poet, Mia gets a job teaching a poetry workshop to a group of middle-school students for the summer. She settles into a sublet where she nightly processes her hurt and anger, and rages against her husband and The Pause, as she calls the younger French woman who replaced her. Yet during the day, she slowly engages with the people around her. Her mother is part of a group dubbed The Five Swans; elderly women who have become friends and who watch each other closely as age takes its toll. Mia is particularly drawn to Abigail, a subversive artist who embroidered ‘secret amusements’ - hidden suggestive and subversive pictures in otherwise pastoral needleworks. She meets the neighbors, Lola and her children Flora, who can go nowhere without her wig, and Simon, a sweet baby. Mia is concerned about the heated arguments that come from that house in the middle of the night. And her students, all girls, respond to her teaching, although they seem to be friends, there is an undercurrent of tension.
Through all these women, Hustvedt examines the stages of women’s lives from little Flora dealing with the upheaval in her home, to Mia’s middle-aged crisis to the aging women facing death and dementia. In Mia, she has created an exceptionally appealing character. Mia has a funny, ironic voice and her sensitivity and empathy for the women she encounters endear her to the reader. Hustvedt has written an unconventional novel, one that doesn’t play with time so much as it examines the conventions of linearity in storytelling. She acknowledges the reader, speaking directly to her in the nineteenth century “Dear Reader” fashion, even thanking her at one point for not hurling the book against the wall. And while she can get a bit lecture-y, the story is saved by her munificent characters and point of view.