Dept. of Speculation: A Short, Unusual, Wonderful Puzzle

Dept of SpecI 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.


  1. Awesome book! I just listened to it, and really enjoyed it. The audiobook might be a way to ‘reread’ it; it was just over 3 hours. I listened to it all one night. For a bonus, the author reads it herself. The underlying anger of the Wife reminded me of The Woman Upstairs, which I also liked. Have you read that one? I’m sure I got the recommendation from you, so thank you! (I waited months for the audiobook to become available at the library)

    1. I’m so glad to hear you liked it! It’s one of the best books I read this year. I haven’t read The Woman Upstairs, but I’m going to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. I’m sure some children sleep well, but mine never have. I didn’t sleep much either. My parents think it’s funny that my kids are exactly like I was.

  2. I’m about to pick this up for a second time in preparation for our Socratic Salon discussion and I’m so excited to see how it reads a second time. I adored it the first time through, but imagine there’s even more I’ll find in a second run.

    Thanks so much for sharing the link – we can’t wait to discuss it!

    1. I’m curious to know what you thought about it the second time around (in comparison to the first). I’m looking forward to the discussion on April 29th!

      1. It was an interesting weekend. 🙂 I finished an edit and temporarily acquired a guest dog while his owner is on the Atlantic side of Florida, visiting friends. He and Suki get along okay, but so far, neither one is eating. It doesn’t take much to upset their tummies, I’ve found. I’m hoping they get hungry enough to eat today, but in any case, he goes home tomorrow and things will return to normal. I’m planning a relaxing week. 🙂

        1. Congratulations on finishing an edit. I hope Suki and your guest end up eating soon. Poor things. They sound so much like my kids (getting them to eat is often a struggle in my household!).

  3. What I love about this book is the tone of discovery every blogger who reads it gets. And yes, the way you have to “read between the lines.” The way I put it in my own review, back in Jan. 2014, was that you get the emotions without the author describing the details.

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