Wayward: A Novel

Spiotta, Dana

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Sep-29-2022


Dana Spiotta is one of my favorite authors, so I was poised to read her latest novel, Wayward, when it was published last year. As expected, it captures the zeitgeist perfectly and is marked by Spiotta’s wide-ranging wisdom, versatile knowledge, and literary creativity.

The book takes place in Syracuse shortly after the election of 2016 (although Donald Trump is never mentioned by name). Sam, the central character in the novel, feels caught in an increasingly unsatisfying marriage. Triggered by her post-election anxiety, she abruptly decides to leave her husband  Matt and daughter Ally. On a whim, she purchases a rundown old-style house in a poor neighborhood in Syracuse and moves in to live as a 53-year-old woman on her own, intent on starting a new life. Matt is disconcertingly understanding and supportive, but Ally cannot abide her mother’s abandonment of the family. It is an unwanted distraction from her single-minded devotion to excel in high school and to go to a top-tier college.

Sam works as a volunteer near her new home at a historical site that is dedicated to Clara Loomis, a fictional woman who left her family (shades of Sam!) to join the Oneida community, an egalitarian retreat based on equality between the sexes but also fuzzy notions of eugenics and human breeding. Sam works her way through some edgy women’s groups in search of friendship. She tries to mingle with her neighbors, who are quite different than the people she encountered in her suburban environment. But Sam’s life is complicated. She realizes that her mother, a self-sufficient creative 80-year-old woman, is probably dying from an undisclosed illness. She feels increasingly distant from the daughter that she loves so intensely, a  problem that her defection to the inner city has only made worse. And Ally has her own precocious story, a secret life, which is told from her perspective, but which is tightly linked with her mother’s narrative of inner growth.

Sam witnesses a police shooting of a Black adolescent, an immigrant from Somalia, while walking near her house during a restless night. While Sam struggles to find a way to articulate what she saw and help achieve some degree of justice for the victim, she experiences an unexpected “assault.” No spoiler alert, except to say that the ending gathers the narrative stands together and is quite satisfying. It is grand in scope and affirms the value of simple human endurance.


I found this book to be emotionally engaging and read it very quickly. There is a keen awareness of the unsteady world in which we live and in which the story unfolds. Spiotta’s writing has a satirical bite to it. She deftly mocks a number of prevailing social trends including ideas about aging, women’s looks, political parties, urban renewal, career fulfillment, and fashionable neurochemical explanations of behavior to name a few. She also has a unique capacity to describe raw human emotions in a palpable and convincing manner, and Sam runs the gamut from intense love to anger to regret. There is a jarring episode when Sam is in a parking lot looking for a spot. When she finds a new oversized van straddling a line and purposely parked to occupy two spots, Sam explodes. She uses her keys to scrape the paint the length of the van, then silently walks away, and we feel her fury. Similarly, Spiotta’s description of the initial exciting inter-personal chemistry as Sam and Matt sit at a bar after their first meeting (at a women’s rights demonstration) is vivid and visceral. One can also feel Sam’s angst when she texts her daughter from her new home late at night and anxiously scans her phone for a response

This is not a perfect book. Sam can be an overbearing presence in her life and on the page, and her perspective dominates from start to finish. We expect the main characters of a novel to dominate the narrative. But Sam’s stream of thought can be suffocating. She is a protagonist who takes up all the oxygen in the fictional space. Some key elements of the plot strain credulity. Is it plausible that Sam would abandon her family and move to an unfurnished inner-city home without central heating and air conditioning? Would a husband whose wife has inexplicably walked out on him be so kind and generous? There is a Dickensian quality to the book in which key events unfold inevitably like the interlocking parts of a puzzle, but a bit too conveniently; one is left thinking there are too many “coincidences.”

Yet, I think there is enormous power and timeliness to the book. Every novel has to have a central character and that person can only assume one identity – in this case an affluent, suburban, middle-aged white woman. Womanhood and female biology and gender identity are indispensable elements in Spiotta’s novel. But what Spiotta accomplishes with that character is to create a narrative that captures universal feelings and reactions despite the idiosyncratic personal setting. We all feel rage and love, regret, and anticipation. Who has not questioned the value of their career and tried to find meaning as the circumstances around them change? Who has not struggled to balance protection of and separation from their children? Who has not wondered at times where their life fits in the grand scheme of things? Spiotta’s creation, experiences these feelings and more in a universally recognizable manner.

A novel has two components – the ideas it engages with and the characters who move the plot forward. The two elements are integrally linked and both are essential for a novel to succeed.    When literature succeeds, it creates a space in which readers can learn to understand and appreciate the experiences of others. It accomplishes this because the novelist enables the reader to transcend the innumerable things that divide us and recognize the universal concerns that we all share. Sam, her life circumstance, and the people in her life are completely outside my realm of experience,  but Spiotta succeeds in creating characters that brought to life themes that were of importance to me as a reader. I think I the majority of readers will agree.



Place Published

New York



Page Count