Published by Knopf
Publication date: January 28th 2014
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a tiny slip of a novel, small in size, only 156 pages long, and yet it chronicles a young woman’s life with as much intimacy as novels of greater length. Somehow, Offill uses words to their maximum advantage in a minimum of space. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, recounts her life from her days as a single woman to meeting her husband, having their child and finally, to learning of his infidelity. And that is how it goes: One day they are joined in the endorphin high of looking at their new child’s face and the next he has met someone “easier”.
The story is told in numerous chapters composed of little paragraphs of trivia, single sentences, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and obscure facts about space from the narrator’s job as a ghost writer for a wealthy former astronaut. Offill’s writing is a combination of Erma Bombeck’s sly wit and Nora Ephron’s eyes-wide-open reality, stirring humor into the sadness. She shares the minutia of everyday life with all its attendant fears in a mashup of tenses—moving from ‘I’ to ‘she’ and back in a way that should stop the reader’s mind and yet, only heightens the feeling that while very little is going on, everything is happening. It is the slow erosion that comes after years of rain, when what seemed strong is no longer. For the narrator, her identity is mutating into something she does not recognize:
How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.
The narrator may be feeling the loss of her creativity as life tosses her around but Offill has no such problems. She mixes astute human observations with bits and bobs of unrelated topics in a way that could be confusing but is, instead, deeply relatable. In Dept. of Speculation we know this woman and, in some ways, are this woman. We have all been there and as she ruminates and reminisces, quips and jabs, we want to give her a hug, some words of wisdom and share a martini. In that order.
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