Despite a comfortable life, Samantha’s family isn’t perfect; her friends aren’t perfect; her marriage isn’t perfect; her admired historical figures aren’t perfect; she herself isn’t perfect. She can’t seem to fix or hide life’s flaws, so in an impulsive move, she makes a dramatic escape from her safe suburban bubble. But can she live more authentically in her new life? This is the dilemma that kicks off Dana Spiotta’s novel Wayward. Samantha (Sam), a wife and mom in perimenopause, buys and moves into a beautiful but rundown house in the city of Syracuse, and makes some ostensibly radical new friends.
Like Sam, I’m a middle-aged White woman married to a generous male breadwinner. This comfy life has been pretty routine for a couple of decades, and I admit it: Moving to a groovy old house in a cheap neighborhood to be alone and find oneself—while still having the financial resources one needs—is an appealing fantasy.
Would Sam be able to find the unburdened young self she remembers from before she was married? Who wouldn’t love to do that? Of course, this is an elusive dream.
What I LOVE:
The teen-daughter subplot is the one that feels the most natural. It’s fun to spot the way in which Sam’s daughter, Ally is similar to and different from herself. Sam’s move out of the family home helps to clarify her own mother-daughter relationship with Ally and her mother-daughter relationship with her own mother, eventually seeing herself as part of a family system.
Sam’s new friends, self-consciously, offbeat White feminists and antiracists, are great parodies. I think Spiotta slowed down quite a bit to bring them alive the way she does. The characters’ Facebook lifestyle groups and their self-improvement regimens are funny, and their earnest need to “cancel” a colleague without explanation shows the queasy edge of their shifting politics. Through the characters and through Sam’s job in the historic home of a progressive (but flawed) woman of the nineteenth century, Sam grapples with the dark side of good intentions.
What I DON’T Love:
A few plot elements, particularly Sam’s husband, feel implausible. Spiotta sketches many situations with breezy familiar phrases and too many parentheticals, almost serving as shorthand, trusting that her readers know exactly what she’s talking about. The writing is often flat, without sparkle, and sometimes clumsy. Ultimately, Sam tries significant, uncomfortable new ways of interacting with the world. She’s awkward but brave. However, in the end, I need to see Sam living with her new insights. How does this experience change her?
Dana Spiotta’s Wayward follows a relatable escape fantasy to its culmination, which is constructive and insightful, but I found the writing style flat, and some plot elements too far fetched. A book of female escape that I liked more than this one is Claire Vaye Watkins, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness.