If anyone, your closest friend, your mom, even a stranger, anyone, came up to you right now and asked you what you wanted more than anything, what would you say? Surely you know, right? You have an answer? An island getaway would be fabulous. Losing those stubborn ten or twenty pounds would be a blessing. Receiving access to reasonably priced dental work would be a dream, but maybe not a desire. To make it nice and simple, a couple million dollars wouldn’t hurt. Though our brains might fight our hearts over needs versus wants, there is no way to get past it. You want what you want. Your wants won’t always serve you well, they might not even be logical, far from practical. And every day you have to make decisions about what it’ll be taking priority. With the resources you have, are you going to do what you need to do, or finally give yourself what you want most?
“She takes her clothes off as soon as she gets home from work, peeling shirt, then pants, and walks around the apartment in her bra and underwear, gesturing and talking, pulling her hair up off her neck. I sit, fully clothed, on the couch and I stay quiet. She wants, she says, over and over—sex, love, a feeling so intense that it jolts her out of the stasis and the strangeness of our lives in this place; I sit quiet in the corner wondering why, but also knowing, I can’t be that for her.”
The story within Want is the universal story of struggle for the middle class. The family at the center is young and white and living in the greatest city on earth, New York City. But despite the privilege built into their family histories and their zip code, it is far from enough to provide the foursome with a stable life. (Once when she’d opened up to her dad about her financial state, he said that helping her, giving her money, would be akin to throwing it away.) Elizabeth and her husband are healthy and lucky in love, regularly having sex in the shower in the rare spare moments that come with parenting their two young daughters. Between them they hold many jobs which are good at leaving them exhausted but not well-paid. They have one magic credit card that Elizabeth holds onto for gummy worms or outfit emergencies. Otherwise they are on the verge of bankruptcy.
Amidst the mundanity, Elizabeth has a charm that immediately sparked an interest for me. Though she sticks to a routine, teaching and running, the journey throughout the book includes watching her break herself free of her self-imposed chains. One consistent way she checks out of her reality is through her obvious joy of reading:
“I tell her I wanted to be an academic because books always made more sense to me than people, because words written down couldn’t be refuted later on.”
With so many statements self-describing the main character as a true bibliophile, it was difficult not to be won over. The implications made in the prologue and in off-hand comments throughout, regarding her old friend Sasha, add a mystery that the trope of the ultra-literary person doesn’t usually have. Then again, one recollection of her adventures with Sasha includes mentioning that in college they regularly brought books to bars, something I myself used to indulge in regularly. I was invested from the first chapter.
Elizabeth is in so many ways average. She works too much and sleeps too little. She dearly loves her children. She forgets to buy presents for a birthday party her kids are going to. She takes issue with her main employer and some of her colleagues there. She doesn’t get along with her parents. She feels stuck. She is trying to hold on to a sense of herself.
While Want provides a criticism of American capitalism by describing how rough it can be to stay afloat while the cost of living is too high, it also provides biting remarks about the state of teaching:
“Teachers try sometimes to teach the way we’re told they want us to be teaching, progressive, emphasizing inquiry and exploration, but then no one seems to trust the kids can learn if information isn’t delivered to them in small, concisely bullet-pointed worksheets and PowerPoints, so teachers summarize and truncate the information, covering themselves, too afraid of all the ways our performances are judged wholly on the scores kids get on tests.”
Elizabeth loves the idea of teaching but isn’t putting much into her day-to-day. She calls in sick again and again, sometimes leaves early to spend the afternoon in a coffee shop instead. Spread too thin, her heart isn’t in it. She has great thoughts internally on how she might do better, and yet she has no power to carry it out. Generally, Elizabeth also doesn’t have a great attitude and is often condescending toward the younger, 24-year-old teachers in the school. But she gets along so well with the Black teachers she shares a homeroom with.
In one scene they show Elizabeth the YouTube videos of how to affix wigs and they go on to point out which students have natural hair versus weaves. One of the Black women pointed out “this girl, against any thinking person’s working knowledge of the fact that this is basically giving in to white supremacy, has somehow been allowed to get her hair relaxed.” It’s a line that is going to sit differently with many after the Black Lives Matter movement has awakened more education in white readers. Elizabeth’s response is to be grateful for the trust she has received from her co-teachers. The poignancy is even clearer now.
On the day that she files for bankruptcy with her husband, she tells her old Sasha via text and the response is a simple “I’m pregnant.” Their recent conversations have been nearly nonexistent and Elizabeth keeps reaching out because, she says, “I needed her [Sasha] to remember that I was still somewhere in the world.” This is likely one of the most relatable moments of the book. Technology is what keeps us all connected, 24/7, to everyone else, while alienating us further into ourselves due to the unlimited possibility. Once best friends, Elizabeth feels the need to prove her relevancy. And in the face of the job that barely pays her bills and proves far from fruitful, creatively, it’s as if she is really treading water, just on the precipice of either drowning or clawing her way back to dry land and a productive future. If she can hang on to Sasha, a constant of her former life, maybe her future won’t be too uncertain after all.
If money is the main player and the biggest problem of Elizabeth’s life, motherhood is what keeps her going in spite of it all:
“My body almost single-handedly bankrupted us. It also, with a little bit of help, made and then sustained the two best things in our lives. We were just privileged enough to think that we could live outside the systems and structures and survive it, but we failed.”
Their first daughter was unplanned, Elizabeth was still in graduate school, and they knew they couldn’t afford her—the emergency C-section alone was $30,000 and her husband still had $100,000 in student loans to pay back—but they shouldered the weight. Elizabeth says she hadn’t been sure whether or not she even wanted kids, but surely based on her friendship with Sasha and Sasha’s history… she had considered it.
The parallels between the fertile and infertile women, how desperate some women are for a successful pregnancy, how it accidentally happens for others and how, still, their wants remain unfulfilled, is brilliant. There’s never really a question of if any of the mothers are good or bad, even if Elizabeth might have strong feelings toward the latter regarding her own mother. One could ask what makes a mother, good or bad? Is it biology, DNA, proximity? Is it none of those things? Can a mother-figure instead be a friend? She says in high school of Sasha:
“She teaches me things mothers are supposed to teach: how to use a tampon, apply mascara, find a bra that fits. How to talk out loud about ideas I’ve only let form in my head.”
Elizabeth’s parents had a lot of money, quite a bit more than Sasha’s family, but they were rarely at home. Emotionally, she sought support from Sasha and Sasha’s mom. With them, Elizabeth could relish in a break from the enormous expectations her own parents placed on her (“fat is lazy and disgusting,” for example). Where Sasha’s mom wanted to know Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s parents demanded to know what impressive thing she’d done lately.
As the chapters move forward through the present, more and more pages are used to describe events of the past, digging into the mysterious Sasha, showing how though she’s practically a ghost in Elizabeth’s 2017 life, she was the major influence in Elizabeth’s life a decade prior. Sasha was always seen, front and center. She was wanted by men who saw Elizabeth as an obstacle on the way to getting Sasha into bed. Sasha relished in the attention.
One summer Sasha slept with a busboy for a month before he started to ignore her and Sasha was worried she’d gotten pregnant. She couldn’t get in touch with the guy and to ease her worry, Elizabeth bought a pregnancy test which Sasha refused to take, blustering, saying she might need an abortion she can’t afford, even though soon after Elizabeth found a used tampon in the trash. When Elizabeth visualizes having sex with the man that Sasha most recently slept with (and obviously told Elizabeth all about), the relationship between them felt most like it was crossing the line from a benignly absurd coming-of-age into an obsessively dependent one.
Their crescendo is on a trip abroad, and soon after their lives become more separate and distinct, and their communication fizzles, devolving into double-tapping posts on social media apps, and unfulfilled promises to get in touch soon. The relationship starts on a reverse track as adults. Elizabeth was innocently cyberstalking Sasha’s social media, and she takes Sasha’s revelation of a new pregnancy as a possible second chance at their friendship, an invitation to try again.
Though Sasha takes up so much of her head space, Elizabeth has other aspects of her life she should certainly be focusing on. She and her husband get to start over financially, their credit score is sunk but their debts are wiped clean. Her daughters require attention and care that she didn’t always receive as a child, especially when her husband is away on a project and she has to parent alone. There are other minor characters around her, her colleagues, neighbors, and students, but even they sometimes serve as an opportunity to tell her history with Sasha. Even after all this time, the dependency never really ceased.
“I wonder if any family, after too long trying and failing to love one another, can hear one another’s words beyond all the ways that they fall short.”
Overall, this book is a precise investigation of motherhood and friendship, the strains one puts on the other, and how the pressures of financial stability control it all. The level of detail in Elizabeth’s daily life is so satisfying. Some paragraphs read like fully fleshed out short stories, the writing is that good. What I usually hope to see in true literary novels such as this one is a character as flawed and true to herself as Elizabeth is. She could be anyone, she could be you, she could be me. In that lies the book’s true success, the ability to play into the experiences, and desire, of any reader.
By Lynn Steger Strong
209 pages. 2020.