Dana Spiotta's 'Wayward' is much more than a midlife crisis novel

WAYWARD, by Dana Spiotta, Alfred A. Knopf. 274 pages, $27

A woman unhappy in marriage, despondent in her middle-aged body, trapped in her suburban home, rebuffed by her teenage daughter, underemployed at a historic home, furious at the political moment (2017, a certain unexpected president) decides to upend her life and flee the circumstances. You know, that old story.

But in the hands of the masterful novelist Dana Spiotta, Wayward becomes something else entirely — a mordant, coruscating indictment of these times, liberal politics, affluenza, self improvement, and social identity. This is what readers have come to expect from Spiotta, author of the indelible 2006 novel Eat the Document. She swings for the fences.

Spiotta’s fifth novel launches as a love story. This being the early 21st century, Samantha “Sam” Raymond, age 53, swoons for neither human nor beast, but real estate — specifically, a dilapidated Arts and Crafts cottage in a sketchy Syracuse neighborhood that she buys on impulse to ignite her freshly woke life.

Sam refers to her moment as “the Mids.” Like Syracuse, like her new urban refuge, she worries that her glory days may be far, far behind her. She craves discomfort of her own making.

Wayward is a love letter to that city, where Spiotta teaches at Syracuse University’s creative writing program. Readers will learn much, occasionally too much, about the Upstate New York hamlet. The book is told in alternating chapters that center on Sam and her daughter, Ally, and one composed of letters and journal entries by young, hopeful Clara. “I am part of something bigger than myself,” Clara writes of her experience in Oneida, a utopian Christian commune near Syracuse (a very real intentional experiment). “Living here has untangled me from worldliness, from servitude, and from the degradation of woman’s lot in life.”

And yet here we are. Sam’s modern world is a stew of political agendas and self-actualization reduced to a hailstorm of acronyms, our need to brand things and belong to our own created communities. WWW! (Women Won’t Wilt!) Ally’s deep into YAD activities (Young American Disrupters), which seems designed not so much to disrupt as to get into top colleges. She’s an accomplished, too-literal teenager, breaking down the etymology of too many words without grasping their true meaning while making a terrible relationship choice.

Wayward explores the ironies and frailties of modern life. A new friend of Sam’s is MH, a fierce, super-fit agitator bent on “potential optimization” and “perverse celebration” protesting in expensive togs while dwelling in tony real estate. Sam strives to improve her circumstances by strengthening her body yet denying it sustenance at her own peril.

She is well aware of the absurdity of her efforts. “What amazed her,” Spiotta writes, was the “insistence of boosting the self when the world — and this country, in particular — was in disgraceful shambles.” People, she adds, “seemed more fixed than ever on notions of ‘self-tend, self-care, self.’ In the current context, wasn’t naked pursuit of health obscene?”

Sam moves out of her house into a neighborhood fraught with potential risk only to sleep with her husband, Matt, while accepting his financial support.

“What did she want? She wanted an honest life,” Spiotta writes. “More than that. She wanted a good life. You can do nothing or you can do better.” Well, good luck with that. You can flee the premises, alter your life and still be held fast by the innate habits and character that make you ineluctably you. 

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