Dana Spiotta is known for her subversive fiction that reimagines what a great American novel is capable of. Her latest work, Wayward, is no exception. Set during the aftermath of former President Trump’s ascension to power, it’s a novel that reels in shock at the decaying state of the world, while also finding moments of quiet compassion to light the way.
At the heart of the novel is Sam, an architecture enthusiast who divorces her husband and moves into a decrepit Arts and Crafts house in Syracuse. She’s also staring into the face of menopause, a steady nightmare of hot flashes and waking up at odd hours of the night. For me, reading Wayward was like looking into the future. I’m in my early twenties – menopause and all its demons should be three decades away, at least – but for the first time I felt a sense of trepidation about getting older. Fuck, I thought. That’s going to be me someday. I wonder if I’ll be able to afford a house by then.
But Spiotta is smarter than that, choosing instead to upend the way we typically discuss divorce, motherhood, and the process of getting older. Sam embraces the changes in her body with a kind of reluctant pragmatism; she despairs how she wakes, unbidden, in the wee hours of the morning, but uses that time to explore her local streets. Even the dynamic between Sam and Ally, her linguistics-obsessed daughter, is unlike many other mother-daughter relationships I’ve read about. In fact, it’s much closer to how they play out in real life; Sam struggles to grant her daughter the autonomy that she needs, while Ally is quick to dismiss how deeply her mother cares for her. Spiotta renders in devastating clarity the growing estrangement between the two women – and how that gulf has been years in the making.
Wayward is a fresh take on abject women, the ones whose bodies and minds misbehave. In another writer’s hands, Sam’s rebellion would be plain embarrassing; she cuts off her hair, forgets to feed herself properly and performs some truly unfunny stand-up at her local comedy club (yes, even by local comedy club standards). Spiotta lets her stumble around without sacrificing her humanity. Sam is, after all, lonely and struggling to feel her way through this new phase of her life. Ally’s transgressions, too, are treated with sensitivity; only sixteen, she begins a consensual – if illegal – relationship with her twenty-nine-year-old mentor. What you might expect is a story where the younger party is cajoled into an unsafe scenario. Instead, Ally maintains complete control over the situation.
Even pre-pandemic, the world felt like it was rapidly falling apart. Wayward is full of references to political unrest and ecological collapse, conflicts that have only gotten worse in the intervening years. But Spiotta reminds us that, even when everything feels out of control – our bodies, our relationships, the world at large – we manage to find ways to balance the scales.
Spiotta’s previous works have touched on ideas of self-invention, and one way we take control of our lives is to transform ourselves. Sam deals with the aftermath of the 2016 election by flirting with activism, ‘resisting’ by lurking on pseudo-progressive Facebook pages as vacuous as the right-wing rabbit holes on Reddit and 4Chan. She makes dubious online friends, including ‘Half Hobo’ Mother Hubbard, who doesn’t have a permanent address but is always expensively dressed. It’s hardly the stuff that changes the world. But even characters like this are given humanity under Spiotta’s hand, a true testament to her compassionate writing style. Like Sam, they’re discovering how menopause has disrupted their womanhood, and by extension, their place in the world. In Mother Hubbard’s case, it allows her to indulge in being undignified and eccentric for the first time in her life. As she puts it, ‘there’s something revelatory and liberating about being an object of contempt.’
Both Sam and Ally are caught in a chrysalis, preparing to emerge as new people into the next phases of their lives. Such transformations bring hope; they remind us that we are all capable of change. Readers who like their fiction to be more than what it seems will find themselves at home in Wayward, and fans of Jennifer Down, George Saunders and Joan Didion will find much to savour in Spiotta’s radiant prose.
Reviewed by Melina.