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What Women Want

Two new novels probe the dangers of desiring more than your lot

Want by Lynn Steger Strong. Henry Holt and Co., 224 pages.

True Love by Sarah Gerard. Harper, 224 pages.

Like the numb and disaffected women who have populated so many American novels since 2015, Elizabeth is tired. Those three words lead the jacket copy on Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want, buzzed about for months now as “hitting extremely too close to home,” the kind of book that “will remain in my brain, bumming me the fuck out, for a LONG time,” or so tweeted the writer Emily Gould.

The aspects of Want that make it so relatable stem from just how tired Elizabeth, a thirty-four-year-old white woman, is. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. so she can “run miles and miles” in the dark Brooklyn streets before her husband and two young daughters wake. She has a PhD in literature (“mid- to late-twentieth century . . . forgotten or actively discarded female writers”) but she’ll never get a tenure-track position at the university where she adjuncts. Instead, she acquiesces to a job at a charter high school where teachers must furnish “deliverables” like uploading lesson plans to the CEO’s “task grid” rather than meet the needs of their Black and brown students. The primary source of Elizabeth’s overwhelm is economic: due to an emergency C-section, extant student loans, and maxed-out credit cards from trying to raise two kids in Brooklyn on not enough money, she and her husband—who turned to freelance carpentry after Lehman Brothers, his former employer, went under—are under debts so insurmountable they require declaring bankruptcy.

What she cannot seem to do is navigate a truly equal relationship: to give of herself as she receives and be satisfied with that she’s getting.

Where in a different kind of novel Elizabeth would stay numb—would want, more than anything, to feel nothing—Strong’s narrator desires more than her lot and acts on it. As the single-word title on the cover, set in stark white serif against a neon miasma, suggests, Elizabeth wants too much. She starts acting on the fantasies of the terminally dissatisfied. She waltzes out of her charter school at midday and doesn’t return, opting to sit and read in the coffee shop she frequented as a graduate student, as though she can revert to a different version of her life by willing it: “If anyone were to ask me why I can’t leave even as this city is too hard for not-rich people, I would say it’s because I’m too afraid what would happen to all these different people [I have been here] somewhere else.” Over text, she tries to rekindle things with her former best friend, Sasha—a girl who in high school and college seemed universally adored, who the then-severely depressed Elizabeth wanted all to herself—now facing a crisis of her own.

But because Elizabeth lives in a world where her actions have consequences on those around her—that is, the real world—acting on her desires damages others. In flashbacks interspersed with the present action, Strong reconstructs Elizabeth’s electric relationship with Sasha: how all that intensity wrought pain and jealousy not just for Elizabeth, but for Sasha, who Elizabeth abandoned in a moment of extreme need. In the fallout of that rupture, the power balance of the relationship shifted: “Years will pass then. She’ll become more frantic as I start to feel more steady. We won’t know how to be with each other without her there to guide us both.” In the present, Elizabeth unburdens herself to two older women she barely knows—a Chilean writer who audits her university class and is not dignified with a name; an elderly Black neighbor, Josslyn—and recklessly seeks a too-close mentorship with a fifteen-year-old girl at her school. What she cannot seem to do is navigate a truly equal relationship: to give of herself as she receives and be satisfied with that she’s getting.     

Want, then, presents a recognizable vision of a certain kind of life under contemporary capitalism—one of downwardly mobile female exhaustion and thwarted dreams, yes—that still acknowledges the power of desire, and the danger of even the smallest desire for something better than the system has relegated to you.

Published on the same day as Want, Sarah Gerard’s True Love takes the consequences of wanting too much down a path that is at once funnier and more dire. Gerard’s protagonist Nina reads almost like a younger version of Elizabeth, if she had dropped out of college and wound up back in Florida instead of clawing her way out of her clinical depression and through the milestones that we’re told constitute fulfillment.

When True Love opens, Nina is a white woman in her early twenties living in a termite-infested apartment in her native St. Petersburg, two years out from the stint in rehab—“I was never picky, and any numbing or mood-altering agent would do. Weed, wine, sex, starvation”—that pulled her out of college in New York. Nina works at a pizza shop and tries to write, but most of her time is spent seeking love in all the wrong men. Gerard conjures Nina as a young woman with spectacularly bad taste in partners and no ability to realize why she keeps falling for such useless egos.

Each man is more vile than the last: Seth, a self-serious artist incapable of follow-through who speaks as though he is monologuing in an undergraduate philosophy course; Brian, an older editor who surreptitiously films his sexual encounters and with whom Nina cheats on Seth; Aaron, a thwarted screenwriter who lives with his parents and feels constantly, unjustly put-upon, with whom Nina also cheats on Seth.

Occasionally, Nina is able to pull herself out of her infatuations long enough to at least understand the shape of her insatiable desire, that she is not getting what she really wants. “The space between us reveals my desire for him, as I am always the one trying to bridge it,” she thinks about Seth. Later, with Brian, she comes to, mid-blow job: “Until that moment, I’ve been in a fugue state, thinking I’m in love with him.” 

It’s all funny until it’s not. In Want, Elizabeth’s desire enacts only the kind of emotional pain wrought of not seeing and being seen for the full person you are. In True Love, Nina’s inability to take responsibility for her desires leads her to gaslight her bad boyfriends as she serially cheats on them. This blindness also yields grave consequences for herself: when Nina marries Aaron, the relationship devolves into physical abuse, and she is the one most harmed. As Gerard piles up scene after scene of Aaron flying into a rage, it becomes more difficult to watch Nina suffer through situations she’s complicit in making that she cannot extricate herself from. “You build the world with your words, Nina,” Seth says in the middle of the book, ending a fight Nina started and escalated by self-harming. What’s sad is that he’s not wrong. 

As in Want, capitalism looms threateningly in True Love, compounding the pain. A quarter of the way through, Gerard moves the action to New York, where Nina pursues an MFA in fiction, and where economic realities trap her further. While she studies, Nina lands a job at a bookstore that she supplements with gig work: modeling for drawing classes, freelance editing. “I feel as if I’m always gasping, always moving, never sleeping,” she thinks. “I see the hustle as a form of violence wielded against me by late-stage capitalism.” Every scene of Nina sitting down to write—either her fiction, or a movie she and Aaron collaborate on called True Love, which like the book itself “follows a group of troubled, narcissistic young people as they become entangled in a series of ill-conceived relationships that flame out in humiliating ways”—turns into commentary on why she cannot write.

It matters that in both of these books, women are unable to reach their potential, professionally and personally, because of the crushing grind of making rent in New York and the foreclosure of a livable wage for writers and academics. But while both Want and True Love espouse a generally leftist set of morals and politics, there is no solution to be found in the collective here. Elizabeth and Nina are on their own.

Except Elizabeth isn’t, not really. She and her husband wield a certain set of privileges: they are white and overeducated if underemployed; they believed they could “live outside the systems and structures and survive,” as though such a thing were possible in a city like current-day New York. And they have a potential escape hatch, or once did: Elizabeth’s parents, successful lawyers in South Florida, are wealthy, and when she was young, they were willing to spread that wealth to their oldest daughter. But she refused it. “For a long time I said fuck them and their fucking money and I was angry and mean,” Elizabeth explains. She had good reasons, in addition to the political—her father willfully ignored her depression when she was a teenager, while her mother held it against her. But by the time Elizabeth is ready to ask for a loan to forestall bankruptcy, her father says that “giving [her] money would be like throwing it away.” 

While both Want and True Love espouse a generally leftist set of morals and politics, there is no solution to be found in the collective here.

The question of family wealth is more ambiently explored in True Love. Nina’s mother has no money to spare, having divorced her father years earlier to live as a lesbian in a nudist polycule; she works crazy hours, but in what reads as an act of self-flagellation rather than a survival mechanism. Nina’s father does have money—his beach condo is outfitted with a Boca do Lobo sofa; he makes commercials. But she asks him for help only once, to pay for an abortion: “‘It’s five hundred dollars . . . . I’ll never ask you for anything ever again. I make fourteen dollars an hour, Dad. Please.’ I know I’m privileged and selfish.”

By the end of each novel, I was anxious for these women to take loans from daddy and get the hell out of New York, and depressed that I felt that way. Like Want’s pre-publication proselytizers, I, too, felt implicated by the novel as an overeducated adjunct who lives in Brooklyn, though I don’t have children and am able, so far, to make my share of the ends meet with several part-time jobs. That Want draws liberally on Strong’s life—several plot points about family and money overlap with personal essays she has written for The Guardian, Catapult, and elsewhere—heightens its stakes and its appearance of reality. It is this quality that makes the impossibility of Elizabeth’s fulfillment, and the fact that her quest for it comes at a high cost for others, even more of a bummer. True Love is too much of a send-up to sting in quite the same way, but for all its excesses, the bleak vision it presents does, too, feel depressingly real: Nina can’t see a way out of her abusive relationship because she can’t afford to move or live alone.  

It is heartening to see both characters want for more than what the world has to offer them, instead of reacting to their circumstances with yet more ennui and anomie. But in Want and True Love, it is the women—and not the systems they operate in—that are ultimately painted to be the cause of their own problems. The game might be rigged, but they aren’t good at playing: Nina is self-destructive and self-absorbed; Elizabeth’s family would be relieved of the anxieties that come with barely surviving if they left the city, and she doesn’t really know why she wants to stay.

Nina is too narcissistic to see her own culpability, but Elizabeth can. Toward the end of Want, Elizabeth thinks about what she wishes she could say to her former friend Sasha. It’s one of the best self-insights in a book composed of them:

I want to tell her that I’m scared I’m too wore out, worn down, that this constant ache that I have now isn’t about my job or kids or all the ways life isn’t what it should be, that maybe it’s just me, it’s most of who I am. That I loved so much believing that there was such a thing as fixing, getting better. That knowing that’s not true, that it’s all just more of the same, exhausts me more than all those nights I can’t sleep, all those miles that I run.

Both Want and True Love enact what it feels like to be worn down, not just by the world and its economics but by the way we choose to move through it. That is a worthy function of both novels: to invite us into feeling each woman’s precariousness, to understand both its systemic and personal roots. If we are still waiting on a book about women living in this era where fixing, getting better, is more than just a fantasy, perhaps we are still waiting for a world where it’s possible to fix.