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Book Review: Dept. of Speculation

2014 July 15



By most definitions, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation wouldn’t truly be considered a novel. It’s 192 pages long, with little in the way of a traditional plot. It’s told in a series of vignettes, flashes and scenes with no real beginning, middle, or end.

I read the whole book on a red-eye flight from Portland to Boston, my reading light one of the only ones lit in the dark of the plane. The plane rocked and churned and shook all the way across the country and my stomach was doing too many flips to try to sleep, so I read.

Stripped to its bare bones, it’s a story of a woman meeting a man, falling in love, and getting married. They write love letters to one another. The husband writes songs for her. The wife gets pregnant and has a baby, a daughter, and falls in love with her, watches in wonder as she gets older and becomes a “being with a soul.” They live in Brooklyn. They get bed bugs.

When the husband cheats on the wife, my stomach flipped again and I had to put the book away for a little while. There were too many lines that resonated too sharply:

“People say, You must have known. How could you not know? To which she says, Nothing has ever surprised me more in my life.” 


“There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcee, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician would say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless. Either way it’s going to be terrible for a long time, the shrink says.”

I picked up the book again after I slept for a little bit. By that time, the plane’s motion was calmer and morning light was visible through the windows with raised shades. So I finished.

It’s a not a book with an ending you can spoil, but even so, I won’t say what happens. The pleasure is in the reading, in the sentences and the sentiments. Even if you’ve never been married, maybe especially if you’ve never been married, you should read this book–it’s a well-drawn study in the many different forms human love can take–from lust to adoration to fear to protection to hate and back again. Carve out a couple of hours and sit down and be with this book.
“The thing is this: Even if the husband leaves her in this awful craven way, she will still have to count it as a miracle, all of those happy years she spent with him.”


2 Responses Post a comment
  1. Nancy permalink
    July 17, 2014

    Sounds like a good read. I would like to borrow it sometime or could take it out of BPL.

    • Jill permalink
      July 17, 2014

      I have it on my Kindle, but it’s a really quick read if you want to borrow it!

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