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Dept. of Speculation

Review

Dept. of Speculation

“Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business,” writes Jenny Offill about halfway through her inventive and amazing new novel, DEPT. OF SPECULATION. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and motherhood, it is, despite its brevity and economy of words, a deeply philosophical exploration of self. The narrator (though there is a shift to third-person narrative at one point) is an unnamed teacher, writer, mother and wife looking back over the relationships and decisions of her adult life and contemplating the complexity, difficulty and joy of it all.

"Offill's prose is simple, but the novel is complex, emotional, astonishing, and occasionally even stunning. The fragmentary nature of the storytelling makes the book all the more realistic, reading often like one side of a very intimate and brutally honest conversation."

Her plan, confirmed by the Post-It note above her desk that read “work, not love!” was to live her life as an art monster, concerning herself only with art and not the stuff of ordinary life. But a romance that included travel and the sharing of personal stories became a marriage, and soon the two were joined by an intense baby girl with dark eyes and sweet-smelling hair. Dreams of a life spent creating turns into a life spent grading and the thrill of travel traded in for a city apartment with an infestation problem. The art monster becomes a woman whose time is consumed with diapers and preschool, bedtime stories and broken bones. Yet it is in those mundane moments that the story soars, questioning the day to day and capturing the tension between contentment and yearning for more. When the narrator's husband's infidelity comes to light, she must assess her marriage and decide what is of most value to her as she struggles to decide whether she can forgive or not.

Offill's sparse style is jarring at first, but readers soon settle into the lyrical rhythm of the novel, which is less traditional narrative and more connected observations, statements and declarations of emotion put into chronological order. Packed with many quotes and references literary and otherwise, it is a story that challenges readers to think and make associations even as the basic plot unfolds. There are delicate and beautiful passages: “I would give up everything for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen. If she would lie quietly with me, if I could bury my face in her hair, yes, then, yes, uncle” --- and devastating ones as well: “the wife has been teaching for twenty years. It is not the first time she's been at the bedside of someone with bandaged wrists.”

Both as delicate and tough as the love it examines, DEPT. OF SPECULATION is so short that it could be read in one delicious sitting. But it should be savored again and again, with various passages and ideas striking the reader in different ways each time. Offill's prose is simple, but the novel is complex, emotional, astonishing, and occasionally even stunning. The fragmentary nature of the storytelling makes the book all the more realistic, reading often like one side of a very intimate and brutally honest conversation. Profound, beautiful and wise, this is a truly masterful offering from a very talented author.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 31, 2014

Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill

  • Publication Date: January 28, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0385350813
  • ISBN-13: 9780385350815