In Dana Spiotta’s novel Wayward, following the 2016 election, 52-year old, married Samantha Raymond goes off the rails. It’s impossible to say that one thing led to her leaving her husband Matt and only daughter Ally. Samantha is not exactly unhappily married but she’s become unmoored. Matt is also unhappy about the election results but his reaction isn’t as intense or deep as Sam’s. For Matt, life goes on, and it’s business as usual. His response causes Sam to feel estranged:
His workouts, his distant looks, and his phone fondling aside, all those seemingly tolerant expressions served only one purpose. he was caring for himself, taking care of his needs, and it had nothing to do with her.
Sam falls in love with a wonderful old house in Syracuse that’s a complete wreck, and she impulsively buys it. Her husband and daughter have no idea, so when she announces she’s leaving, Matt and Ally are in shock. Matt’s reaction is to be supportive and to give her whatever money she needs (until she comes to her senses). Ally’s reaction is to stop talking to her mother.
Unbeknowst to Matt and Ally, Sam furious about the election went off the rails on social media. From Facebook, she heads into a local protest group of mainly middle-aged women and two young women who blame the older women in the room for Donald Trump’s victory. According to the young women, the meeting is “full of cis, straight, white privileged women” who have a “lot to answer for.” This meeting leads Sam to a series of fringe groups, including various Armageddon, survivalist groups, fundamental Christian groups and Hardcore Hags, Harridans and Harpies. It’s through Hardcore Hags that Sam meets the mysterious MH “real name Devereaux, a.k.a. Mother Hubbard.”
At sixty-five, she had the hard contours of someone who could do pistol squats and burpees. Her hair was silver rather than gray, and her eyes a high contrast, striking blue. She was wrinkled but in an austere, Walker Evans way. Sam guessed that MH was actually more glamorous as an older woman than she probably had been as a young woman. She didn’t have that quality of a thing faded, a hint of beauty lost. She looked peak. MH immediately launched into a monologue about her “‘n=1” self-experiment in carnivory. She was eating nothing but meat and water for a month, “nose-to-tail,” with lots of organ meat and raw suet.
“Only ruminants. No fish, fowl, or swine.”
MH, a “biohack obsessive” is a mass of contradictions; she claims she’s a ‘half-hobo” but is expensively and stylishly dressed; she’s “all about the gift of middle-life, of menopause,” yet she’s taking hormone replacements. Now she feels “wildly unleashed,” and as part of her object is “provoking people,” she goes to a stand-up open mic comedy club where she delivers a monologue about her first period, a pregnancy, a miscarriage and an abortion, ending with the image that “everything-everything-becomes drier and rougher. And worn down-like sprung, stretched-out elastic on a pair of granny panties.”
For this reader, Wayward was an unsatisfying read. The quotes may sound funny, but within the text, MH is annoying and gag-worthy, and her very serious self-absorption along with Sam’s train-wreck of a life, suck any possible humour out of the tale. I expected to like this novel far more than I did. There are many ideas and social issues here, perhaps too many, and the characters seem created to fit those ideas and /or issues. I could never quite accept why Sam left Matt (especially given the later plot), but then perhaps this is all about privileged middle-aged white women feeling rudderless and falling prey to influences such as the totally fake MH. Authenticity or the lack thereof of in the lives of privileged people seems to be the main theme here: and once I accepted that idea, I could accept Sam’s rather feeble attempt to break away from a family who deserve better.