The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

When I started reading this book, I thought she was neurotic. Now I understand that she is just blatantly honest, this mother, this wife, who tells us her story in bits and snippets as though we were reading her journal. Or, her mind.

They may seem disconnected, these stream of consciousness thoughts, but they are interwoven with quotes from poets and scientists, reporters and explorers, priests and Zen masters, to reveal a disconcerting vulnerability. I found my attention captured by this woman who begins by telling us the love she feels for her newly born daughter:

“The baby’s eye were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”


“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.”

But then she segues into marriage, into the abyss of an affair she discovers her husband is having.

“There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.”


But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.

So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. “he can’t help it.”

What exactly am I waiting for her to say? That she married a fool? That her house is built on ashes? And here I am, the lucky one for once. Such blinding good fortune to have married him.

The wives have requirements too, of course. What they require is this: Unswerving obedience. Loyalty unto death. My husband sits in our kitchen and hand-sews a book. I hope that when it goes through the post office no machine will touch it.


She remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in. She laid her head on his chest and listened to his heart. One day this too will stop, she thought. The no, no, no of it. Why would you ruin my best thing?


They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.


The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact).


What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

They whisper-fight, now. They hash out their issues in the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. There seems to be no solution.

There are two women who are furious at him. To make one happy, he must take the subway across town and arrive on her doorstep. To make the other happy, he must wear for some infinitely long period of time a hair shirt woven out of her own hair.

Her writing is segmented enough to be fascinating, connected enough to be brilliant.

But, if it was me? The minute my love wants someone else, he is free to go. I would never, ever, make a place for him to stay, let alone demand it.


14 thoughts on “The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

  1. I like the way this narrator sorts patiently through the thin, flexible chains that bind her to her husband and her child, like trying to untangle a knot in a couple of thin necklace chains.
    The part about bedbugs, too… none of the messiness is left out!


    • I completely agree: the original voice is spectacular, so refreshing. I don’t know if the narrator is someone I would like, not that it matters, but she is zealously honest. Remember the part where she asks her husband why the affair? Thinner? Taller? Younger? and he replies, Easier? I totally got his response.

      And thank goodness she escaped any marriage plot cliche. That would have been disastrous to the integrity of the novel.


        • You are most generous with your books, in sending them to Richards and years past, to me. I never know what Richard will feel about a book; we have yet to agree on something we both like. But, I value his opinion most highly, and hope he’ll find something in this work that sits right with him.


  2. My copy of Dept. of Speculation has been sitting on my bookshelf for several months and while I want to read it something keeps preventing me from picking it up. (Possibly all the praise I read on its initial release?) I’m really pleased to learn that you found enough connections between the fragments to give the narrative a ‘spine’ (if that makes sense!). I shall have to get around to reading it soon.


    • So many times praise doesn’t pan out for me, but in this case it does. Such a fascinating look at marriage in particular, and relationships in general. (How can we ever meet all the needs of someone we love?! I’ve decided we can’t, and anything that alludes to divine partnership comes from a Disney princess.)


  3. I put this on a (corporate driven) display for “If You Liked Gone Girl” last week at work. I never gave it a second glance, but after reading your review and all of those lovely passages, I think I need to give it a read.


  4. Pingback: My Year in Reading for 2015 | Dolce Bellezza

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