Marriage and Personal Struggle: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

I’m back, or so I hope! I had a hard time motivating myself to write over the last few weeks but I’m hoping to now slowly get back into the swing of things. 

I have been reading my books, though, so I have some reviews to catch up on. I’ll start with one of my favorites from the summer, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

I first spotted Dept. of Speculation under the category of “Mystery and Thriller.” I skimmed the blurb which described it as a suspenseful tale of marriage and motherhood and immediately decided that it was right up my alley.

It turned out to be completely different from what I expected. First, it’s a slender book at 160 pages. And when you flip through it, all you see are what appear to be little paragraphs. Indeed, the structure is unconventional. The book reads almost like poetry and the nameless narrator (sometimes “I,” sometimes “the wife”) jumps from one thought or short vignette to another. Offill’s lyricism reminded me of Paul Yoon’s beautiful Snow Hunters.

The story is a first-hand account of the changes in a marriage, and one woman’s slip into depression and the impact on her marriage and ability to parent. It is about the realities of marriage – about how chasms build and how difficult it can be to bridge them. There is an element of suspense, because her struggles hit a climax and as readers we hold our breaths to find out what happens, but I would most definitely not classify this book as a mystery or thriller.

I found such beauty in Jenny Offill’s writing. The book is small but each word is pregnant with meaning. She throws in a number of literary and scientific references, including many about living in space. But all of it is relevant. And she conveys just as much in what she chooses not to write. Here is a passage that really stayed with me:

So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. “We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.”

“I love autumn,” she says. “Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?” She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. “Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I am saying autumn instead of fall.” (page 46)

And here is a space reference:

Survival in space is a challenging endeavor. As the history of modern warfare suggests, people have generally proven themselves unable to live and work together peacefully over long periods of time. Especially in isolated or stressful situations, those living in close quarters often erupt into frank hostility. (page 56)

“The wife” never tells us she’s anxious about her marriage, or that she is slowly falling apart as a mother and human being. I recognize her depression because I have been there: Anxious when marital longevity has deceived us into thinking communication unnecessary; fearful that my mood swings will one day drive my husband away; guilty about how absent I am as a mother even when I’m physically there. It’s eerie, how I picked up this book during a depressive relapse, thinking it was going to be some literary version of Gone Girl and instead hearing the whispers of another woman speaking right to me. “The wife” and I do not experience the same marital crisis, but I could relate to what goes on inside her head.

It’s a book that I am planning to re-read, and this time with a pen and notebook, in order to pick up on everything that I had missed the first time around. It’s a surprisingly intimate read given its brevity – a little somber, sometimes irreverent, but ultimately hopeful. Most of all I just found it very real.

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17 thoughts on “Marriage and Personal Struggle: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

  1. This sounds very intriguing! I just read a longer excerpt on my library website and you are right, the writing is quite lyrical and beautiful. Reading your review and the excerpts made me immediately think of my book club. I am going to recommend this at our next meeting, as I think we can all relate to the subjects of anxiety and its impact on marriage and family. I don’t think I can read a book like this and not discuss it with anyone. Thank you also for the reference back to Snow Hunters – definitely another book on my list!

    • As Naomi’s comment below proves, this is definitely a book worth discussing, so I think it’s great that you will be recommending this at your book club meeting! It didn’t bother me, but it is a story with “holes” – I really did feel as though I was reading someone’s journal. Thoughts jump about but you read between the lines, or even insert your own assumptions. The story would make for a rich discussion, I think. I’m also glad I got you interested in Snow Hunters!

  2. I was thinking about your review of this book while I was at the dentist today. Your reaction to it was different than mine. When I picked it up, I was hoping for a story I could sink my teeth into, but the writing style of this book doesn’t really allow for that. It is more poetic and invites you to stop and think about what she’s just read. I did find the writing beautiful, and there were many beautiful passages that I read over several times. But, in the end, it made me sad. I like to read books that are sad, but I don’t like to read books that make me sad. I’ve never really been sure what makes the difference. Maybe what she had to say seemed so real, like it could happen to any of us. But I also wondered if it was a bit of a downer for me, reading it as a happy person. But for someone feeling sad or melancholy at the time of reading her book, for them it might feel like a friend. It is definitely a good book for discussion. I especially liked the parts about parenting. Some of the things she said felt so true, and almost like I was re-living it. That feeling when your spouse closes the door and you’re all alone for the day with your baby (or babies), the hours stretching out ahead of you. All the more overwhelming if you are suffering from depression.

    • So interesting to hear your take on it, Naomi. I agree this is a book that can be taken in very different ways. I was expecting a traditional novel as well and was initially disappointed, but maybe the subject matter and timing allowed me to embrace it. You are right that it is a sad book…I’d say not so much because of the events (although they certainly weren’t happy) but the entry into this woman’s mind. I felt as though I were reading her journal, and so I was reading the journal of an unhappy person. There was a bit of fight to her though, which made it palatable for me. I think it’s also interesting that we both came to the conclusion that this story felt very real, or too real. I agree that that was the emotional punch of this book, for better or worse. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. They were interesting extracts. It seemed strangely… real. You know those books where the impressions you get of the characters just build gently up, and you’re invited to live inside their heads. And then you are reading it, who have experienced something so similar yourself, which doubly underlines a feeling of authenticity to me.

  4. I’ve missed reading your words! I understand the struggle with writing, Ceci – I felt the same this summer, existing in my blog only to record milestones and such, but never really into the writing itself you know? Writing for the sake of recording doesn’t feel the same, and it sadly shows.

    As for the book, I’m thoroughly intrigued, and I love how you’d succinctly put to words the chief struggle My Guy and I had when we were slipping away from one another: “…marital longevity has deceived us into thinking communication unnecessary…” Yes. That. We have learned our lesson since then, but I’m interested to see the other facets of a relationship that you’d alluded to here because, after all, we’re always changing and with that, there will always be new challenges, whether we’re ready for it or not.

    • Thanks for your comment, Justine! The summers are hard, aren’t they, for writing? I often feel like molasses with the heat and lack of structure…you definitely had a very busy one this year, so I don’t blame you for not being able to write. I saw that you have posted some links recently though, so I will definitely catch up soon.

      I’m glad that my words about communication resonated with you. While it’s true that we no longer need to say as much, I don’t think that we could ever do away with communication no matter how well we may think we know one other. I’m glad you guys have learned from that as well. If you have that, it can arm you for any challenge that comes along, right?

  5. Welcome back, Cecilia. I’ve missed your words and book reviews. Hope to read more of these reviews in the next few weeks. I love how you center on books/authors that are unfamiliar to me. I am certainly intrigued by this author’s premise and I love that it is less than 179 pages. Cannot wait to read this book!

    • Thanks, Rudri! Ha ha, lately I am feeling the same way about shorter books. I’m literally in the middle of We Are Not Ourselves, which is an enjoyable and easy read but 600 pages long. I hope you will enjoy Dept. of Speculation!

  6. This sounds like a fascinating read, and I imagine than any of us who have lived the experience of mothering or wifing would find a mirror of some of our more challenging moments. I think we’ve all been there.

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