Dana Spiotta's new novel, Wayward, is about a 53-year-old woman named Samantha — Sam — Raymond, who's going through menopause and becomes a little unhinged. She leaves her husband and her teenage daughter in the suburbs of Syracuse and impulsively moves into a dilapidated Arts and Crafts-style bungalow in a crumbling downtown neighborhood of that city.
If this premise sounds melodramatic, that's not the kind of writer Spiotta is. As a long-time fan, I went back and looked at the reviews I've written of Spiotta's earlier work: In every review, I've used the word "smart." Spiotta is one of the most alert, ambitious, nuanced, and, yes, smartest of our contemporary novelists.
Because Wayward is set in 2017, it's not "only" about one woman going internally haywire, but about the entire country roiling in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the rise of the #Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements.
This story opens on a restless Sam having trouble sleeping. (Who among us cannot identify?) Here's how Spiotta describes Sam's stirred-up psyche:
Lately [Sam's] desire to be contrary to convention had taken on a new urgency well beyond clothes or matters of taste. An unruly, even perverse inclination animated her. It had been looking for a place to land, for something to fasten on. So now ... this odd inner state pushed her toward a highly destabilizing wildness (a recklessness) that she couldn't suppress any longer.
Idly scanning the online real estate listings, Sam finds that elusive "something to fasten on" in an Arts and Crafts bungalow, complete with leaded windows and a tiled fireplace, advertised for "intrepid buyers only." In other words, the place is a charming ruin.
After seeing it, Sam decides, in the words of feminist poet Adrienne Rich, to "div[e] into the wreck." Only after she's written out a check for the asking price of $38,000, does Sam realize that "saying yes to this version of her life would mean saying no to another version of her life."
Spiotta's novels, always rich with ideas and atmosphere, often focus on the arts: In her 2011 book, Stone Arabia, the art is music; in Innocents and Others, which came out in 2016, film is at the story's center. Here, architecture connects to Wayward's larger meditations about impermanence and decay — human, structural and even national.
As Sam restores her "minimally habitable" shambles of a house, she's also casting about for answers to how to construct a meaningful life in her 50s and, also, how to come to terms with the looming end of things. Meeting up with other white women her own age at political gatherings after the election, alienated Sam disdainfully looks at their carefully angled, highlighted "silvery haircuts" and "Eileen Fisher linen pants" and surrenders to what she calls "bouts of midlife misogyny." Fortunately, the Syracuse area is rich in women's history and the nearby presence of iconic women's houses — such as those of Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — offer Sam some inspiration from the past.
Spiotta, however, complicates things by making up a faux 19th-century figure she calls "Clara Loomis." Loomis went to medical school, fought for suffrage, and, regrettably, became a proponent of eugenics. Sam uneasily works as a paid guide at the fictional Loomis House, and has to deal with the contempt of visitors who dismiss Loomis' accomplishments and flatly label her a proto Nazi. Inevitably, Sam wonders how she herself will be judged by posterity, in the form of her own daughter. On a lighter note, Sam's tour guide patter can be hysterical — in every sense of that word. Here's a snippet of one of her lectures to a high school group:
"Clara Loomis, in her middle years — after menopause, when having children and rearing children were no longer considerations — started what she called her true life." Sam emphasized the word "menopause." She didn't know why, but she felt the urge to scream it at young women sometimes. She imagined herself shrieking "Menopause! Menopause! Menopause!" but settled for merely enunciating it, because she wasn't a total psycho, not yet.
There are subplots here about Sam's ill-but-resolutely solitary mother and her sophisticated teenage daughter who's losing herself in an erotically charged affair with an older man, but it's the character of Sam herself — messy, hurtful, floundering in late midlife — who's the compelling draw. Recently, I've become aware of the term, "crossing the crimson bridge" as a fanciful way to refer to menopause; in Wayward, Spiotta endows that passage with all the gravitas and unpredictability it deserves by giving us a heroine who chooses to take a flying leap off "the crimson bridge" into uncharted territory.