Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation”

She is a writer and a professor, quick-witted and dark. He works in the music industry and is notoriously kind. They are introduced. Something clicks and they become inseparable. But then …
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Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Through painstakingly crafted sentences that are at once full of wit and snark  yet stripped of any embellishment, Offill has created a boy meets girl story that lays bare the peaks and pitfalls of modern couplehood. Her main characters are simultaneously anonymous and completely exposed.

From the start “she” is hyper-aware of their incongruity and is perhaps wonderstruck by the magic that has brought them together.

“He is famously kind, my husband. Always sending money to those afflicted with obscure diseases or shoveling the walk of the crazy neighbor or helloing the fat girl at Rite Aid. He’s from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front at the baggage claim. Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. This is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily. I hate, for example, people who sit with their legs splayed. People who claim to give 110 percent.”

When “she” and “he” meet, marry, and buy their first home, the reader has already begun to detect the wry lens through which “she” sees the world. “She” is piercingly honest, irreparably cynical, and improbably endearing. “She” is the misanthrope you can’t help but love.

“The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.”

These are further signs of chinks in the couple’s armor, of potentially conflicted world views. Inevitably, a baby is added to the mix, and being thrust into motherhood upends “her” in a way that feels deeply, refreshingly honest.

“Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.”

“What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.”

“She” is rocked by her new role. She is equally overwhelmed by and despairing of being a mother as she is smitten with and devoted to her new daughter.

“I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.”

“Dept. of Speculation” is scathingly, darkly, tragically funny and refreshingly honest. Her characters – particularly “she” – are human, vulnerable, and flawed. I know this woman; I’ve thought her thoughts. Through Offill’s pen, “she” is allowed to say the things we never dared to say and with far greater pith and bite than we ever summoned. Offill’s story is relatable, her voice is unique, and her wit is razor-sharp. A true delight of a book.

“Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart…it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.”

 

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