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 they 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.
The above blurb is kind of a bust. I was anticipating an epistolary novel filled with these mysterious letters addressed to "Dept of Speculation." But, no. The actual letter-writing isn't referred to until probably halfway through the book so if you really, really want an epistolary novel The Dept of Speculation isn't it.
Jenny Offill has written a tiny, gem-like novel (or novella, wherever your length cut-off for novellas happens to be) about a woman's perspective on her life as she moves from student to girlfriend to wife to mother and how it impacts her intention to make some really great art. It is some of the best 120 pages of writing I've ever read. I would exactly call it stream-of-consciousness in the way that Mrs. Dalloway is a stream-of-consciousness novel but portion are just like being stuck inside someone's head.
My favorite line:
"I think I was afraid to go all in," she says. "Because all in is terrifying. With all in, you lose everything."Agreed. Going all in on a relationship is the most terrifying thing on Earth.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.