While we know that every decade endures significant cultural shifts and societal prescriptions, it is the plight of the eighties child that expectations do not always meet with reality. Such is the case for Elizabeth, the first person narrator of Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel, Want (Henry Holt).
Elizabeth certainly has some coveted pieces of the “pie” — a husband, who is awfully nice and caring, two small daughters who adore her — and lives in Brooklyn, along with many others of their generation, all like-minded people. She and her peers have gotten a similar memo: they must follow their dreams, fill their desires. Some have succeeded at it and some have not.
Elizabeth’s Boomer parents also gave her the message that one must pursue one’s passion at any cost. However, they have presently withdrawn their emotional and financial support, and Elizabeth is ill prepared for life without it; her struggle is profound. As we are drawn into her drama, we are reminded that longing, necessity and survival are often one package.
Her life is bookended by doubt and second guessing, a discerning view of class distinction and entitlement, what education and the rewards of earning power provide or take away. Want is about a generation of young people who cannot sustain themselves despite how they were raised or what they were promised. It is about doing the right thing and not being rewarded.
Elizabeth who hasn’t a moment to herself, is a runner, jogging through the streets at ungodly hours. Yet even that seems dipped in darkness and hopelessness. Her life is about what is essential and the demons that fester when one cannot move forward in a capitalistic society. While she and her husband are an impressive couple in terms of earned degrees and education, awareness and privilege, they are also stuck in a place where they cannot make ends meet and where destruction and despair are edging in.
Teaching, as Elizabeth does, cobbling a few jobs together, is complicated, without enough pay and plenty of obstacles and personalities to contend with. Little matter that she was raised in a moneyed family, that she is well read or that her handle on literature and writing is outstanding. None of this can cure her ills; she lives in a very basic world where needs are specific and constant.
Her husband long ago left Wall Street and the financial security of it. At the time, Elizabeth believed in his decision, but what did she want, what would a family need? By the time that we meet her, the couple can hardly pay a babysitter for one night to go to a business dinner that her husband imagines will provide a solution. Added to these circumstances, she is haunted by a childhood friendship that has left her scarred, and struggles with how unreliable and seemingly judgmental her parents have become.
We are taken along on a very urgent personal journey. Throughout the twists and turns, the reader knows every thought and yearning; every physical and emotional experience is laid bare. When it comes to Elizabeth’s daily battle for food on the table, a place to live, a mother (who is the grandmother to her young daughters) who doesn’t understand her turmoil, we are there.
Without saying too much about the plot, Elizabeth’s daily deluge is filled with specific characters who have their own unmet desires, their own hand to play. Everyone seems to have her own definition of how it should be versus how it is. Being a wife, mother, sister, teacher, friend, it’s all there. Add to this the idea of place as destiny.
The books that came to mind while reading this include a wide swing — from Jude the Obscure, to Cat’s Eye to Hausfrau. Tales of people who cannot let go of their hunger, be it for a city, a friendship, a sustaining romance, love. All of it looped into the trap of not having what it is that keeps us afloat, daring to be content, let alone safe.