Dana Spiotta’s Wayward follows the contentious path of Sam, who falls in love with a decrepit yet glorious Arts and Crafts bungalow in downtown Syracuse, leaving behind her husband Matt and daughter Ally to start a new life. While the novel doesn’t jab at the tilt of western society — and America in particular, toppled by the election of Trump — it stabs us straight in the heart, right where the knife belongs. Locked into a society that seems to evolve without us, it’s driven by a tribal mentality with the help of social media on steroids and textbook activism so finding her place without the anchor of family is a challenge. AIgorithms, hardly artificial as they represent the worst of human tendencies and rarely intelligent, reduce the lives around her into a ravenous, heterogenous blob that consumes anything and everything 24/7. All of which is evident when it spills over into group think as activists and renegades stake their place in a kind of Kabuki theatre of the absurd. Alongside the need to promote that which they consume, bloated by misinformation and seduced by material wealth, they belong in a parallel universe, which Spiotta brilliantly illuminates through her laser-sharp prose, revealing an admirable take on culture where authenticity isn’t valued over recognition.
Front and center in the novel is the aging process, in particular the challenges women face as perimenopause claims the body, mind and spirit, which hummed along uneventfully up to that point, a betrayal that requires strategy and arduous discipline. A masterfully vivid depiction that’s powerfully mediated by Sam’s determination not to only counter the effects but to ultimately accept them.
Against the historical backdrop of Syracuse, Spiotta anchors the novel with a perspective which traces architectural evolution prototypically American, through construction, destruction and deconstruction of the 5th-largest city of New York. Like most cities, small and mid-size, the struggle to sustain character and integrity there is a constant challenge, a perfect metaphor for a woman reaching middle age.
Spiotta’s shrewd faux suffragist, Claire Loomis, makes the fatal error of promoting eugenics after losing her daughter. As Sam tours a gaggle of teens around the historic Loomis house, she fires up a fractious and precocious teenager touring the historic house who argues, “’She was into white supremacy, Nazi stuff about pure genetic lineages…’” Sam replies, “‘Genetics, yes, but not tied to race or ethnicity. She hoped that diseases, like the one that killed her daughter, would be eradicated.’’
Framed by inequality and the disintegration of social justice, a fact and observation that weighs heavily on Sam, in Wayward the personal is also political. The relationship with her daughter Ally is a living, breathing organism in which a battle ensues between free will and determinism in the realm of child rearing. A constant question of the dictatorial parent whose relentless negotiations, in the name of protection and defense, are engaged to no avail. For good reason as Ally enters the land of the predatory at the tender age of seventeen. Her defense is a tacit dare to Sam.
Sex was another thing that was not at all what everyone said it was. It wasn’t informed consent like in health class, a script of “can I” and “yes.” It was a suicide pact, and equal danger and transgression on both sides was part of what made it exciting. They both needed jeopardy for the connection to be equal. On her side, she could get found out by her parents.
Social injustice rears its ugly head when in the dark of night she sees a cop shooting a Black kid. At home, she mulls over the events, horrified that she was a witness. Everything goes blank and she ends up on the floor with blood pooling around her head, convinced that law enforcement was seeking retribution just in case she considered blowing their cover. But the assault never happens. At the hospital, after running a scan, she finds out she had a transient ischemic attack.
Her familial standing is further contrasted by her mother, a compassionate, magnanimous and an exceptionally loving example of parenting, Sam wrestles with her own tendency to overreach and invade her daughter’s privacy — truly a familiar virtual landscape for a parent of the 21st century. Ironically détente comes about not by a mutual understanding but through the well-intentioned direction of her mother, whose health is compromised, and who pleads with Ally to make amends with Sam.
At different junctures, the conflicts are tempered by characters who come to terms with adversity far too easily. Relations between Sam and Matt are accommodating and rarely strained, which doesn’t reflect the upheaval and ongoing struggle upon which Sam’s exit is based. Similarly, Ally appears too rational and pragmatic for a late teen navigating the twists and turns of familial and romantic entanglements.
As in life rarely do we acquiesce and face up to our tunnel vision, our limited view of the world and so life goes on without us, leaving the chance of reconciliation less likely. But here in the world of Wayward, the fierce independence of Spiotta’s characters navigate their way through separation, love, disruption, illness and injustice to a more peaceful and sustainable existence.
by Dana Spiotta
Knopf; 288 p.
Melanie Mitzner‘s novel Slow Reveal will be published in Spring 2022 by Inanna Publications, York University, Toronto. She studied screenwriting at the New School and privately under Meade Roberts, who adapted for the screen Tennessee Williams’ plays. An excerpt of her novel Too Good to Be True was published in the Harrington Lesbian Quarterly. She was awarded an Edward Albee Fellowship for her screenplay Zero Gravity, an M.E.T. Theatre Fellowship and was a finalist in the Writers Guild East Foundation Fellowships for her screenplay Dodge & Burn. Out to Lunch and In the Name of Love were finalists in the Houston Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. She’s currently working on the final draft of her new work The Expat. In the novel, a Millennial photographer boards a bus for Canada on Inauguration Day 2017. When she arrives in Montréal, she befriends a retired gay music producer. Their dynamic, intergenerational relationship defies the conventions of ageism and empowers their activism in a charged political climate where the future of both young and old are at stake. She’s on Instagram and Twitter as well.