At first, Sam delights in her new neighborhood. Like a tourist in Paris, she discovers a bakery and a grocer, “marveling that everything she needed was in walking distance.” But she quickly realizes that she has not merely traded a new house for an old one, she’s abandoned the material safety of the suburbs. Even the money Matt doles out to her — thinking the house and the divorce a momentary whim — can’t protect her, a woman alone, in a neighborhood where “opioid zombies” roam the streets and shots ring out at dawn.
But as the months wear on, Sam decides the house has given her purpose. “This was why you came here,” she thinks. “You came here to witness, to see the world and then to act and make it better.”
This is, in some ways, familiar territory for Spiotta, whose precisely observed, fiercely intelligent fictions all hinge on women who resist comfort and security, who question — and often renounce — the trappings of wealth and success, finding refuge on the margins of society. But while Spiotta’s previous novels run on Didion-like cold fusion, “Wayward” reads like a burning fever dream, powered by hot fury rather than icy remove. There is a mythic quality to her narration, as well as a dark strain of humor, as if she — like Sam — can’t quite believe the world in which we’ve found ourselves.
That world, precisely, would be 2017, perhaps six weeks after Trump’s inauguration. “Is this about the election?” Matt asks, when Sam tells him she’s leaving. It’s not, she insists; however, she has, in the ensuing months, morphed from a Talbots-clad housewife into someone who feels not just derision but anger toward her well-kept peers, with their “age-defying, sculpted shoulders and upper arms,” their “expertly balayaged highlights” and “gray-disguising ash-blond.” Sam finds refuge in Facebook groups with (hilarious) names like “CNY Crones” and “Hardcore Hags, Harridans and Harpies,” not realizing — tragically — the extent to which she’s gone down a rabbit hole, leaving behind clueless Matt and her scarily self-motivated 17-year-old, Ally, through whose jaded eyes Spiotta shows us Sam, from time to time. The picture, of course, is not pretty.
Nor is “Wayward.” But it’s something far better: a virtuosic, singular and very funny portrait of a woman seeking sanity and purpose in a world gone mad. And here’s the thing: In the eight years since those first nights in my new apartment, I’ve remarried and moved to a charming house in a beautiful neighborhood. My life is happy and full. But as I read “Wayward,” I felt a twinge of envy for Sam’s silent house, for her ability to provide order to her own days, and for her furious attempt to live “an honest life. More than that,” actually: “a good life. You can do nothing or you can do better.”