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Once, the novel of midlife crisis seemed exclusively concerned with white male professors lusting after their students—Philip Roth’s David Kepesh books, including The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal, are the quintessential specimens of the breed. That’s a premise of limited potential, even if you can get past its predatory selfishness, and it’s tended to produce work of blinkered insight about midlife, which is a time of enormous transformation. Midlife is interesting not because of a sudden interest in younger bodies. It’s interesting because it’s the point where you switch your focus from what you want to make of your life to what you can rescue from the mess you’ve made of it so far. It’s humbling and disorienting and, for women in particular, a slightly surreal experience, plagued by the unpredictable special effects of a body gone haywire, from hot flashes and insomnia to weirder stuff. (In my case, my sense of smell became so acute that I could suddenly tell, from the sofa in my own apartment, when my next-door neighbor’s kitchen garbage needed to be taken out. You do not want to be living in New York City if this happens to you.)
Sam Raymond, the main character in Dana Spiotta’s Wayward, is going through all that. Her restlessness manifests itself in a familiar way—she makes an improvident purchase and leaves her husband of twentysome years, but instead of buying a convertible, Sam buys a house. It’s an abandoned Arts and Crafts–era bungalow with excellent bones under all the decay, but still an “unloved, forgotten house” overlooking the “unloved, forgotten city of Syracuse, New York.” Sam’s extremely patient husband expects her to return at any moment, but her 16-year-old daughter, Ally, is enraged by her mother’s departure—which is strange, given that Ally, who is going through the equally rocky stage of adolescence, usually resents her mother’s smothering attention.
Syracuse, once a prosperous hub on the Erie Canal, is full of handsome 19th-century buildings fallen on hard times, available for a relative pittance. I know this because before I’d ever heard of Wayward, I followed the @syracusehistory account on TikTok. Ogling Belle Époque–era mosaics and stained-glass landing windows set into walls of peeling paint is apparently a common fascination among women of a certain age, for reasons all too easy to deduce. Houses are such a long-standing literary metaphor for a woman’s psyche that it’s no wonder that moving into a new one feels like migrating into a new self, or at least a new stage in life. For me, it was the leap from a tiny New York apartment where the neighbors’ garbage suddenly felt too close to an old shipbuilder’s house on the coast of Maine, from the city’s anonymity to a small town where everyone I meet seems to have heard all about me already. I couldn’t tell you the name of the person who owned my apartment before me, but now I live next door to a cemetery where I can visit the graves of some of the people who once lived in my house.
Sam, who wants to purge herself of the unthinking comforts of the suburbs, lives in monkish austerity, sleeping on a twin bed and lovingly deep-cleaning her house’s original detailing by day: “What was wrong with her, feeling so happy about cleaning old wood?” she wonders. (It’s startling how much you can love an alcove under the stairs or a window ledge when it belongs to you and you alone.) She rubs the molding until it glows and looks up the history of the house at the county historical association.
At night, Sam does what most of us do when we can’t figure out what we want to do: She browses boutique identities online. On Facebook, Sam explores subcultures founded on eccentric forms of self-comfort, pursuits that flourished during the Trump administration, when this novel takes place. There are “aesthetic fundamentalists” who engage in “extreme pie making with stunt designs made of dough,” “Moravian-style wax star folding,” and concocting traditional poultices and potions by “grinding seeds and oils by hand with a mortar.” Sam dips into communities of anti-tech homesteaders dedicated to living as if it were no later than some specific date in the past, although, Sam observes, “somehow living as a 1912 woman or as an 1860 woman involved being on Facebook a lot.” The core of Wayward’s charm lies in what good company Sam is. She dissects many flavors of contemporary delusion and distraction with consummate precision and yet never comes across as waspish or savage. She observes her own desire to imagine herself as “subtly different from everyone else, enjoying the tension and mystique of being ordinary on the surface but with a radical, original interior life” with a cool, easy tolerance but zero vanity.
Sam has a part-time job at Clara Loomis House, a museum devoted to an (apparently fictional) 19th-century Syracuse medical doctor and feminist who helped provide women with birth control and performed abortions but also advocated sketchy ideas about “controlled genetics.” Sam can’t quite sort out her feelings on this complex woman, who seems to combine the admirable and deplorable in equal measures. So when a high school student attending one of her tours accuses Loomis of being into “Nazi bullshit,” Sam’s defense of Clara is by necessity halfhearted. Yet that doesn’t mean she’s prepared to abandon Clara Loomis, either.
Simmering under Spiotta’s deceptively breezy, fluid description of everyday life in 2017 Syracuse are large and perplexing questions about the eternal interplay of idealism and pragmatism, of the longing for a better world and the reality of human frailty. In past novels, Spiotta’s characters often try to construct alternate realities for themselves, a doomed endeavor that can nevertheless dazzle the reader with its creative ingenuity and vigor. The heroine of 2011’s Stone Arabia (titled after another town in upstate New York) discovers that her late brother had invented and “documented” an entire Dylan-esque music career for himself, complete with fictional bands, LPs, interviews in music magazines, and top-100 charts. But Sam lives resolutely in the real world, with the consequences of all the mistakes she’s made, especially the mistakes she’s made with Ally, and with a cleareyed awareness of her own equivocations. One thing the novel makes clear is that certainty—in thoughtful people, at least—tends to erode as one grows older.
In a world increasingly populated by absolutists, Sam’s behavior may seem as wayward as the novel’s title suggests, but an equally fitting title for the book would be Salvage. How, Wayward asks, can people make a better world without, in their fervor, summarily jettisoning everything of value from the past? Which relationships are worth preserving despite the shortcomings and misdeeds of the people we share them with? Part of the novel is given over to Ally’s point of view as she gradually realizes that the older lover she once found so thrilling is in fact someone she neither likes nor respects, a man in the process of converting an old convent into condos and workspaces for tech bros, complete with Edison lightbulb fixtures and barn doors. “There is something fake in the apartments,” Ally concludes, “in how they are not really well made. The key is to appear well made. It is a prosthesis for actually making something beautiful.” She has a lot more of her architecture-obsessed mother in her than she realizes. And as exasperated as Ally is with Sam—an exasperation that, the novel makes clear, is justified—she will surely find that, on balance, theirs is a relationship worth preserving.
While presenting her tour of the Loomis house to that gaggle of distracted and judgmental teenagers, Sam finds herself seized by a desire to scream “Menopause! Menopause! Menopause!” at the girls, but settles for simply saying the word, “because she wasn’t a total psycho, not yet.” Wayward is full of the familiar complaints of women at this life stage—namely, that they feel suddenly invisible, a quality that, in a rather superfluous narrative twist, enables Sam to serve as a witness to a police shooting. But what Sam feels the urge to shout at the kids is less an assertion of her own presence than a reminder of something they won’t fully understand until they reach her age: mortality, the impending end of things, of which menopause is a harbinger. I think of it every time I walk past the graves of the Duym family and wonder if I, too, will end up in the Seaside Cemetery and pique the curiosity of some future owner of my house. Death is both life’s greatest flaw and the inevitability that perfects it. Clearing enough space in yourself to accept this paradox is midlife’s great project, and the impetus behind Sam’s most wayward—and inspired—acts.