A man undergoing a midlife crisis buys a sports car. At least that’s the cliché I remember from the nineties. Perhaps the anxious men of today buy pickup trucks or, if they listen to podcasts, cryptocurrencies—unless such men have lost their jobs, which is not unlikely. In that case, maybe they pull a Walter White and earn some extra cash moving narcotics. Everyone has a side hustle nowadays.
But what does a woman buy when she’s the one having a midlife crisis? I don’t mean to engage in some hack stand-up routine. Assumptions about what men and women in this stage of life desire can illuminate much about prevalent attitudes regarding sex, gender, and aging. Perhaps this hypothetical woman doesn’t buy anything; perhaps, like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, she engages in an affair, the love of a younger man rekindling her own youthful spirit.
A doomed love affair, though, sounds very nineteenth century. Today, the average educated woman gets married later in life, and she may not pine for romance as much as a windswept heroine on the Highland moors. She probably works too, and between working out at the gym and performing the lion’s share of household chores, likely does not have many occasions for her bosom to heave in the presence of a rugged farmhand.
Allow me, then, to venture a guess. A woman of the twenty-first century, weathering a midlife crisis, will find herself in want of a house. There are now whole industries catering to women’s ongoing love affair with real estate: Boomer women, endowed with their retirement savings, watch HGTV and select the perfect backsplash for the kitchen sink; their frugal Millennial daughters, navigating the post-2008 economy, browse Zillow looking for deals on turn-of-the-century homes with good bones. Meghan Daum, working between these generations as a member of Gen X, neatly summarized this impulse with the title of her 2010 memoir: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.
Wayward, Dana Spiotta’s new novel, dramatizes just such a relationship between a middle-aged woman and her dream home. But while there is certainly humor in Wayward, the approach is darker and more obsessive than one might assume, given the subject matter. The dreams that the dream house affords become quite unsettling.
The story finds Sam Raymond turning fifty-three in the year 2017. Her life is comfortable. Her husband, Matt, is a successful lawyer. Their seventeen-year-old daughter, Ally, is a driven, successful student, fond of looking up Latin etymologies on her phone. The family lives in a comfortable house in a suburb of Syracuse, New York. In between working out at the gym and buying salmon at the grocery store, Sam works a part-time job at the Clara Loomis House. Loomis, a real historical figure, briefly lived in the town’s Oneida Community, and she went on to write pamphlets in support of birth control and the suffragette movement.
One day, Sam comes across a beautiful old Arts and Crafts home in a rundown neighborhood of Syracuse. The listed price is $38,000, a steal. But the house would need to be completely redone, from floor to ceiling—the kind of job that would require money, time, and the hiring of skilled labor. Sam does something impulsive: she buys the house without telling her husband. Then she does something even more impulsive: she tells her husband that she wants a divorce. She will leave their suburban home and move into the falling-apart house, where she will live, alone.