As I’ve mentioned before in reviewing novels this year, the newly independent woman finding herself in New York has become a genre unto itself; the best example this year is “The Exhibition of Persephone Q”; the two women writers who’ve helped to establish this genre are the superbly gifted Mary Gaitskill and the always fascinating Ottessa Moshfegh. Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel “Want” joins this exclusive club of excellent novels of this ilk.
The narrator, Elizabeth, lives in a cramped apartment in New York with her husband and their two young daughters; both decided to choose and/or leave corporate (or similar) work in the eighties to pursue their own dreams, which the narrator points out early in the novel was their first big mistake: Elizabeth has longed to teach at the college level, while her husband makes furniture, bookcases etc. for houses for the rich, so their financial stability hovers near zero. Early in the novel, after Elizabeth has had her hours’ long morning jog and taken numerous forms of public transportation to get to her job in an inner city high school, a job she increasingly hates (though she’s good at it), she’s signing her part of their bankruptcy papers, a kind of punishment for daring to live a life freely chosen. Lynn Steger Strong, the author, is particularly good at describing their tenuous life, along with the emotional ups and downs of Elizabeth, who’s had emotional problems since her college days. Elizabeth also grew up in Florida in a family of considerable financial means, and her parents’ disapproval of the way she and her husband live palpitates throughout this fine novel.
Elizabeth and her childhood friend Sasha had, before their marriages, had a very strong bond of friendship, which included going to the same college; Sasha’s the popular, outgoing one, while Elizabeth chooses to see virtually no one but Sasha; Sasha has a tendency to crave male attention, particularly sexually, creating ongoing co-dependencies, but it’s Sasha who eventually calls Elizabeth’s parents, who show up in (presumably ) Boston as Elizabeth has had a kind of nervous breakdown. Elizabeth’s parents more or less hold this against her indefinitely; they are judgmental, directive, disapproving, and financially stingy; her mother reminds her on the phone after Elizabeth is married with children that it’s always possible that social agencies will swoop in and remove her children from her (no evidence of why this should be is given, of course; it’s just the mother’s cruelty and emotional blackmail: this part of the novel is incredibly well delineated). Even after years of these two women’s friendship has seemed to die, Elizabeth rather obsessively checks Sasha’s FaceBook pages (et. al) for news of her life. The friendship between Elizabeth and Sasha is critical to this novel, as the genre itself often survives on the friendships between women friends.
The difficulties of the dailiness of a marriage so fraught with financial difficulties and complex daily logistics (the philosopher Kierkegaard maintained that “dailiness is despair”) will nearly sink this marriage, but the marriage survives and oddly flourishes; the ending does bring a very tenuous newly adult link between Elizabeth and her parents, mirrored by old friend Sasha arriving for a visit after she gives birth and is utterly lost, as well, in an inversion of the old rules and roles of the friendship. Strong admirably combines these two narratives and their reflections on Elizabeth’s increasing emotional strength. As in many such novels, the male (husband, in this case) isn’t terribly well rendered, as the reader sometimes wonders how he can stand Elizabeth), but that’s a minor glitch in one of the strongest novels this year about New York life, lived under dire financial circumstances, but this family does survive intact; it’s an unusual New York novel in that the daily struggles of this family are the heart of the book, but Lynn Steger Strong writes with strength and confidence. “Want” is an admirable and surprisingly powerful novel.