What started out as a really sweet family study turned into a pretty painful read. Offill has been there ("there" being the depths of marital disaster) — that's clear — and has captured this slice of domestic drama with something that I can only describe as an aching tenderness. Small and slight vignettes are layered again and again to make up this gorgeous little novel. Beautifully done. Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Dept. of Speculation
is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.
Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes — a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions — the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.
With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page.
“A novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors. If it is a distressed account of a marriage in distress, it is also a poem in praise of the married state. If it brutally tears apart the boredom and frustrations of parenthood, it also solidly inhabits the joys and consolations of having a child. If it laments the work not done, the books not written, the aspirations unfulfilled, it also represents work well done, a book written, the fruit of aspiration....It is often extremely funny, and often painful; earnestly direct but glancingly ironic, even whimsical....Offill’s narrator is curious, witty, intellectual, literary, insomniac, and rawly honest both about others and about herself. She is invigorating company, but won’t go out of her way to make herself charming or genial. She is thin-skinned, fatigued, and full of embattled chagrin. In short, she is alive....Reminiscent at times of Lydia Davis’s short texts....Its depth and intensity make a stealthy purchase on the reader...Offill’s brief book eschews obvious grandeur. It does not broadcast its accomplishments for the cosmos but tracks the personal and domestic and local, a harrowed inner space. It concentrates its mass acutely, with exquisite and painful precision.” James Wood, The New Yorker
“Slender, quietly smashing....The story shifts and skitters, spare but intricate as filigree, short bursts of observation and memory — comic, startling, searing — floating in white space....Offill has tapped a vein directly into the experience of this marriage, this little family, this subsuming of self, and we mainline it right along with her....A book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.” Boston Globe
“Breathtaking....Reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat but with a less bitter edge...Dept. of Speculation charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose....Moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others...Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing....She deftly moves the novel forward with elegant shifts of point of view.” The New York Times Book Review
“Introspective and resonant....Brave...Offill uses her novel to explore the question of how to be an artist as well as a wife and mother, when these states can feel impossibly contradictory....She’s willing to put it all on the page, the mundane alongside the profound, revealing that they’re not quite as different as we might have thought.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Offill’s unnamed heroine...has a lot in common with the narrators of [Renata Adler’s] Speedboat and [Elizabeth Hardwick’s] Sleepless Nights: she is observant and literary minded, given to seeing the odd connections (or lack of connections) among the things that make up her day-to-day life and the more subterranean thoughts that jitter around in her head. She also has a lot in common with Joan Didion’s heroines....A genuinely moving story of love lost and perhaps, provisionally, recovered.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Audacious....Hilarious...Dept. of Speculation reveals a raw marital reality that continues to be expunged from the pervasive narrative of marriage....Offill moves quickly and poetically over deeply introspective questions about long-term partnerships, parenthood, and aging....From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is a complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.” The Atlantic
ONE OF THE 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR - THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
A Best Book of the Year: The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vogue.com, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed
In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young and giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. "Dept. of Speculation" was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life--a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions.
When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story--a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page.
In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young and giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. “Dept. of Speculation” was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life — a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions.
When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story — a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page.
About the Author
Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, which was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times and was a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award. She is the coeditor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays, The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. Her children’s books include 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, and Sparky. She teaches in the writing programs at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.