Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: Dept of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation
By Jenny Offill
Random House January 2014
177 pages
From the library 

Dept. of Speculation

The wife is looking back at her relationship with her husband. She records little thoughts - the times when they were happy, the moments when one or the other failed horribly, the gasps of joy when their daughter stole their hearts all over again, and the ache of loneliness in an uneven relationship. These tiny vignettes give the reader an intimate look into the most private and vulnerable moments of a marriage.

The best way to describe this book, perhaps, is the word fractured. There is not particularly a narrative here. The timeline is revealed to us through these tiny, distinct paragraphs as the wife and the husband wonder if loving their work is more important than putting bread on the table or marvel at the changes they face as they grow older. This approach has advantages and disadvantages. This kind of writing makes you feel far away from both the wife and her story, but the writing is so sparse that the really insightful, really beautiful lines hit you right in the gut. 

"My plan was to never get married. I was going to become an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabakov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him."

"My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn't know them."

"What did you do today, you'd say when you got home from work, and I'd try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing."

"Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, I saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But it was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness."

"How has she become one of those people who wear yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be." 

There are so many books written about relationships, marriage, and motherhood. Dept. of Speculation is very different from any of them. In a very short book, Offill is able to brilliantly plot a relationship - the joys of new love, the sorrow of a broken heart, and the resolution to stay true to the one you love for the long haul for, as our narrator so aptly puts it, "no one young knows the name of anything." 


  1. I had mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, I admired the way the author used an unusual narrative style to capture moments in her adult relationship. But I came away wishing for more than moments. I had curiosity what was happening between those moments she shared, and how one led to another. I think the book felt incomplete to me because of that.

    1. Yes, I think you put it very well. The moments were beautiful and insightful, but it wasn't really a full story.

  2. It's a great title. And I like the uniqueness of its narrative style ...sometimes the way a book is written makes up for what it lacks in plot. Plus, it's short! I'd actually have time to read it. :)

    1. It is short! That is true. And the fractured nature of the prose means that if you don't have time to read for a few days, you won't be totally lost.