Book Review: ‘Wayward,’ by Dana Spiotta

I diagramed “Wayward” on a paper napkin to show a friend, trying to explain the novel’s hold on me. The lure isn’t just voice or plot. We accompany Sam through her sleepless nights, in her newfound solitude as she restores a majestically crumbling house in another part of town. She sends plaintive text messages to her daughter, calls her mother. She eats a piece of cake. Her mind churns, she scrolls the internet, she listens to the storm of her body.

I ended up scribbling a sort of chain reaction. The movement of the book is essentially a panicked ricochet: how the choices the characters make force choices on other people. One story strand moves forward in time, another carries the reader backward, to see the previous decisions and wounds that inflect each choice. A section takes us back into the history of Syracuse, where the novel is set. Given these countless contingencies, the unseen actions and histories dictating our own, how do we define human freedom? Or safety?

The characters stumble toward questions about the structures holding them — their bodies, homes, identities — wondering how and where to draw their borders. Sam turns out to be an ideal guide. She’s rash, funny, searching, entirely unpredictable, appalled at her own entitlement and ineffectuality — drawn with a kind of skeptical fondness that recalls a Grace Paley line: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

The local pleasures of Spiotta’s writing are sharp, and many: Sam recalling the narcotic pleasure of holding her daughter as a baby, her painful longing and loneliness for it now. Or smaller moments: the tug of a fork cutting through cake, say, or the vicious infighting in the Hardcore Hags group. So much contemporary fiction swims about in its own theories; what a pleasure to encounter not just ideas about the thing, but the thing itself — descriptions that irradiate the pleasure centers of the brain, a protagonist so densely, exuberantly imagined, she feels like a visitation.

“It was wrecked. It was hers,” Sam thinks of the home she restores herself with pride, marveling at the beauty she can see. Wrecked and hers — the home, the body, the frayed relationship with the town, country. Exasperated, insomniac, ineffective, she scrubs and smokes and thinks, and suddenly, through the clean windows, perceives “a festival of inflected light.”

Must Read