Dept. of speculation

Jenny Offill, 1968-

Book - 2014

"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 th...ey confront an array of common catastrophes--a colicky baby, bedbugs, 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 can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel. "--

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New York : Knopf 2014.
Physical Description
179 pages ; 20 cm
Main Author
Jenny Offill, 1968- (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

This is a magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts. Offill, author of the novel Last Things (1999) and various children's books, covers this shifting terrain and its stormy weather in an exquisitely fine-tuned, journal-like account narrated by "the wife," an ironic self-designation rooted in her growing fears about her marital state. She is smart if a bit drifty, imaginative and selectively observant, and so precisely articulate that her perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings. And she is mordantly funny, a wry taxonomist of emotions and relationships. Her dispatches from the fog of new motherhood are hilarious and subversive. Her cynical pursuit of self-improvement is painfully accurate. Her Richter-scale analysis of the aftershocks of infidelity is gripping. Nothing depicted in this portrait of a family in quiet disarray is unfamiliar in life or in literature, and that is the artistic magic of Offill's stunning performance. She has sliced life thin enough for a microscope slide and magnified it until it fills the mind's eye and the heart. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

The book's title refers to the return address used by both husband and wife on letters they wrote to each other while dating. This slim novel continually speculates on the marriage of our unnamed protagonist, through all its vagaries, including the husband's affair with a much younger woman. Everyday events are always related from the wife's point of view. She is a writing instructor at a college in New York City and is also helping to write a book for a "would-be astronaut" about space travel. As the woman moves through the phases of her eagerly anticipated marriage to an Ohio-born musician, from its beginning through motherhood and more, the reader easily empathizes with her struggles and frustrations. The narrative changes direction near the end, when our heroine attempts to keep her soul together along with her marriage and family. VERDICT This work reads very quickly, and a second read is recommended. Offill's lean prose and the addition of astute quotations prevent the text from becoming just one more story of an infidelity. The author's debut, Last Things, was a Los Angeles Times First Book Award finalist, noted by the New York Times; here, her writing is exquisitely honed and vibrant. This would be an enlightened choice for a reading group. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH [Page 81]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood fill Offill's (Last Things) slim second book of fiction. Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises. The 46 short chapters are told mostly in brief fragments and fly through the life of the nameless heroine. Her mind wanders from everyday tasks and struggles, the beginnings of her marriage, the highs and lows with her husband, the joys of having a daughter. These domestic bits are contrasted by far-flung thoughts that whirl in every direction, from space aviation and sea exploration to ancient philosophy and Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics. Anecdotes and quotes also come from all over: Einstein, Eliot, Keats, Rilke, Wittgenstein, Darwin, and Carl Sagan. Often, the use of third person places the heroine at a distance, examining the macro-reality of her life, but then Offill will zoom in, giving the reader a view into her heroine's inner life—notes, graded papers and corrected manuscripts, monologues, imagined Christmas cards and questionnaires. Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it's her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read: "Just after she turns five my daughter starts making confessions to me. It seems she is noticing her thoughts as thoughts for the first time and wants absolution.... I thought of stepping on her foot, but I didn't. I tried to make her a little bit jealous. I pretended to be mad at him. ‘Everybody has bad thoughts,' I tell her. ‘Just try not to act on them.' " (Jan.) [Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC

Review by Publisher Summary 1

An unflinching portrait of marriage features a heroine simply referred to as "the Wife," who transitions from an idealistic woman who once exchanged love letters with her husband and who confronts an array of universal difficulties.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

From the acclaimed author of Weather comes a slim, stunning portrait of a marriage--a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.ONE OF THE 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR - THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEWA Best Book of the Year: The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune,, Electric Literature, BuzzfeedIn 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.