In this latest collection Siri Hustvedt demonstrates her tremendous range as an essayist, with topics ranging from motherhood to reading during a pandemic to misogyny to Jane Austen’s expertise in rhetoric. Even within individual essays in Mothers, Fathers, and Others she jumps from topic to topic, and this diversity presents a dichotomy of sorts. While the variety keeps each essay interesting and creates a picture of well-rounded, holistic arguments, the essays at times feel unfocused and meandering, varying in density and interest level. At its best it is engaging, at its worst pedantic, but it has something for almost anyone.
The initial essays in the collection begin with an in-depth exploration of Hustvedt’s family, spanning from her ancestors in Norway to the immediacy of her mother’s passing. The first essay, entitled “Tillie” after her late grandmother, manages to work in larger statements about the nature of immigration in an otherwise detailed portrait of a fascinating, formidable woman. From there, we are treated to essays on the cultural perception of motherhood, interwoven with anecdotes of Hustvedt’s own mother. While the facts and arguments may seem familiar, such as contrasting the expectations of fathers versus mothers, Hustvedt pinpoints the philosophy behind them in a unique, accessible way. For instance, she notes that fatherhood is marketed to men in terms of its tangible benefit to them, and that “sacrifice is not a selling point for men” and is therefore not presented this way when we discuss fatherhood. These essays appear to set a tone for the collection as a whole, but this soon shifts.
The transition to a more literary discussion begins at “Mentor Ghosts,” an essay based upon the realization that Hustvedt finds more satisfaction in a two-line letter from Djuna Barnes than she would from any flesh and blood mentor. This essay takes on the sexism Hustvedt has often faced, especially in direct comparisons to her author husband, Paul Auster. From here we encounter pieces on COVID-19, particularly “Reading During the Plague.” It is important to note that the essays in this collection span a significant time period, some written as early as 2011 and some as recent as 2020. This time period spans presidents and political eras alike, and surprisingly it’s the most recent of these essays that read as dated.
It is towards the middle of the collection that we encounter more literary criticism. A standout is “The Sinbad Variations: An Essay on Style,” which reimagines the story of Sinbad by presenting a variety of narrative forms, everything from a conversation between Hustvedt and Auster on how to write the story to an imagined screenplay to a deep interior monologue from Sinbad’s own perspective. The essay is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” in terms of style rather than substance. Humor and stylistic variety come together and create something truly memorable.
In “The Enigma of Reading,” Hustvedt takes on the public opinion, past and present, of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. While there are moments of clarity in this piece, the essay itself runs long and changes topics so frequently it is difficult to remember the initial thesis of the piece. Many of the longer essays run into this issue, relying more on digression than thematic cohesion. It is why the shorter essays in this collection ring true.
Hustvedt’s collection as a whole reads like a personal diary, albeit the well-thought out diary of an accomplished, knowledgeable person. Her interests in neuroscience and art come to the forefront, and her insights are far from hackneyed, but some meander too often in details and jump frequently from topic to topic. The standout essays are truly memorable, and for this the collection is worth exploring, and has certainly piqued my interest in Hustvedt’s lengthy bibliography.
Mothers, Fathers and Others
By Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster
Published December 7, 2021