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In a recent interview for the website Literary Hub, Dana Spiotta cited British novelist Ali Smith (SUMMER) --- someone who “writes about wider historical concerns, like Brexit, but does it on a hyper-local, intimate scale” --- as an influence in the shaping of her own work.

Measuring her latest novel, WAYWARD --- the story of a middle-aged woman’s search for identity as a wife, mother and daughter in Trump-era America --- against that high standard, it’s easy to recognize Spiotta’s affinity for Smith’s sensibility. Readers will appreciate how she’s made it uniquely her own in a deeply satisfying character study that’s also a snapshot of American life at an especially perilous moment in the nation’s history.

Spiotta, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, has chosen her hometown as the setting for the story of Samantha (Sam) Raymond, a woman several years past her 50th birthday, who, a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, impulsively abandons the suburban home she shares with her husband, Matt, and nearly 17-year-old daughter, Ally, for a tiny century-old Arts and Crafts bungalow in a “neglected, once-vibrant” Syracuse neighborhood that is simultaneously populated by “opioid ghosts” and is undeniably quaint. “The house was falling apart. The house was beautiful,” she observes as she contemplates the project she’s undertaken, one that will involve renovating the dwelling and salvaging her life.

"...a deeply satisfying character study that’s also a snapshot of American life at an especially perilous moment in the nation’s history."

Beyond a feeling that Matt “treated her the way someone would treat a talkative child or a needy dog: doling out just enough attention to be acceptable but not enough to encourage her to keep going,” Sam, who “still believed herself to be (however stealthily) an eccentric person, not suited to conventions of thought or sensibility,” isn’t impelled to leave by any profound unhappiness.

Indeed, she portrays Matt, a man she met at a NARAL march in New York City in the 1990s and who’s unfailingly generous in sharing what he consistently refers to as “our money” to allow her to refurbish her new home and maintain herself, as an essentially decent husband and loving father. Instead, what she calls an “odd inner state” had “pushed her toward a highly destabilizing wildness (a recklessness) that she couldn’t suppress any longer.”

In Sam’s sometimes appealing, sometimes aggravating, but always engagingly rendered voice, we experience her piquant insomniac musings, especially those in the menopause-triggered time she calls “the Mid,” which “always seemed to be precisely 3:00, very seldom 3:10 or 2:55.” Sam reflects on her past and future life, wondering if she might descend into the desperation that impels a woman she reads about to become a serial stowaway on airplanes while simultaneously pondering if she “can be Dorothy Day with an allowance from an ex.”

Sam works part-time as a docent at the Clara Loomis House, once home to a fictional character who was part of the real-life Oneida Community that both advocated sexual freedom for women and explored controversial practices in child breeding. More than simply an intriguing historical curiosity, that plot thread lends color and a quality of timelessness to her story.

Spiotta also situates Sam squarely and uncomfortably among the members of the Sandwich Generation. On the one side, her travails extend beyond her own identity crisis to the agony she experiences as Ally responds to her departure by angrily freezing her out of her life. On the other, she finds herself having to deal with her own mother’s medical diagnosis that quickly moves the end of the time they have left together from vague prospect to looming reality.

In several shorter sections narrated by Ally, Spiotta skillfully portrays a bright, self-aware teenager who “had a sense then that her own taciturn, miserable teendom was about to open on something much, much more suited to her.” But her decision to embark on a reckless relationship with an older man only reveals how much she’s missing a steadying maternal presence in her life.

With a touch that’s never heavy-handed, Spiotta evokes the #MeToo movement (with an interesting twist) and describes a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Over these events floats Sam’s dismay at the election of Trump, a catastrophe that for her had caused the world to “shrink into a new, weird shape,” something that had “changed everything, had escalated everyone’s anger and disease,” even as we know that in 2017 far worse lay ahead. Sam isn’t immune to that affliction, as she demonstrates in a moment of barely provoked, uncontrolled anger in a parking lot: “Rage was in the air, stupid, impulsive. The age of no-reason.”

But for all her flaws, Sam Raymond is a woman who “wanted an honest life. More than that. She wanted a good life. You can do nothing or you can do better.” As WAYWARD ends, Dana Spiotta is wise enough to leave it to the reader to assess how far Sam has progressed toward that goal. Whatever one concludes, the journey there and the invitation to contemplate what might lie beyond it is never less than fascinating.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 16, 2021

by Dana Spiotta

  • Publication Date: July 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593318730
  • ISBN-13: 9780593318737