I hadn’t heard of Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, until I received it as a present from my Dad. Even then, I didn’t look it up to find out its genre, subject matter, or reception. All I knew was what was on the front cover, including a snippet from The New York Times Book Review calling it “joyously demanding.”*
I’m rarely in the mood to read a “demanding” piece of fiction — these days, I read for entertainment — but I decided to give Offill’s book a chance. My Dad, the person who made me into the reader I am today, has never steered me wrong. With Dept. of Speculation, his streak continues.
It’s a short, unusual, and wonderful book about everyday subjects.
This little novel is a compilation of the loosely connected thoughts of a narrator we know only as “the wife.” She is struggling with a professional plateau, the highs and lows of motherhood, and a rocky marriage. It’s a somber story, one that includes a betrayal of trust, but there are several moments that made me laugh.
For example, after the birth of her daughter, “the wife” takes issue with the phrase, “sleeping like a baby,” saying:
Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.
Tidbits like this one made “the wife” real to me. My three girls were fitful sleepers, when I was able to get them to sleep at all, a reality that not only made me resentful of the phrase “sleeping like a baby” but also made me angry at every well-intentioned person who advised me to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” My babies never slept! They still don’t. Ugh.
But back to the book:
The wife’s observations about motherhood and marriage are honest and compelling. She’s a woman with “crookedness” in her heart, one who “thought loving two people so much would straighten it.” Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
Fragments about the wife’s personal struggles are interspersed with trivia about a range of topics, from antelopes to the Zen master Ikkyu, forcing readers to figure out the connections. It’s challenging to piece together the story from a series of anecdotes — an endeavor that requires reading between the lines — but, in the end, it’s an interesting and worthwhile 176-page puzzle.**
This book is worth reading again both to savor its unusual presentation of common obstacles in life but also to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I wonder if I’ll connect the dots a little differently next time.
*However, I’m wary of the advertising that appears on book covers. Remember Anita Shreve’s Strange Fits of Passion?
**I read the e-book version, which doesn’t have page numbers. The Internet tells me that this novel is somehwere between 176 and 192 pages long. The Internet also tells me that it was highly acclaimed, though I didn’t read any of the reviews (at least not that I remember!), not even the one I quoted in this post (that appeared on the cover).
***Have you read Dept. of Speculation? Do you plan to read it by April 29th? If so, stay tuned for the discussion about the book on Socratic Salon, a new “spoilers-welcome” zone for bookish folks led by some of my favorite bloggers. I’m really looking forward to it.