Friday, April 4, 2014

book review: Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The basics:  "Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all." (via publisher)

My thoughts: I've spent a lot of time thinking about Dept. of Speculation since I finished it in January. Typically, I like to write reviews soon after finishing novels, but I wanted to ponder this one. And even as I still am, I'm ready to start talking about this remarkable book.

First, I am officially a huge fan of Offill's writing. She's hilarious: "That night on TV, I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted. If you have not known suffering, love me. A Russian murderer beat me to it." She's wise: "For most married people, the standard pattern is a decrease of passionate love, but an increase in deep attachment." I read for the joy of her sentences as much as anything else. When I started this novel, I was enraptured and awed with her writing and unconventional structure (the chapters are vignettes of sort, and it takes some time for the plot to emerge.) I didn't particularly care where it was going, or even how it would get there; I knew I needed to be along for the ride. In a pinch, I suppose I would call this novel experimental, but it's also far more accessible than most experimental novels. Narrative structure aside, there is so much familiar material in the vignettes to enjoy. At times it read almost like a stand-up routine that ends up coming together.

While I loved the experience of reading this novel (and truly savored it), I was somewhat underwhelmed with it as a whole. I loved each of the parts, but I expected the sum to add up to something quite different. Perhaps because I called this novel experimental as I read (and spent so much time thinking about its structure), that I lost sight of trusting Offill and enjoying the journey on which she took me.

Favorite passage: "Three things no one has ever said about me:
You are very mysterious.
You make it look so easy.
You need to take yourself more seriously.

The verdict: Dept. of Speculation is a fascinating, thoughtful, slim novel. As I read, I was utterly enraptured. It was so good that when I was finished I was oddly disappointed because I wished the collection of so many moments of brilliance added up to a bit more as a whole. Still, it's a novel I'll continue to re-read for years to come, and I'll continue to savor the prose of Jenny Offill.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Dept. of Speculation from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jenny Offill's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I loved this one. On the surface, it seems overly simple but it's actually quite complex. At the end, it was anti-climactic but deceptively so. Finding yourself after the struggles they had, is a huge accomplishment. That internal struggle on the outside may not appear to be much but the stuff that went on in her head... oh man that was some good stuff.

  2. I agree with you. I found the whole thing gripping, but it didn't have a lasting impression on me. Shame as the writing was fantastic.

  3. I really enjoyed this one, too, and upon finishing, I just wanted more! But in a good way. Definitely a memorable read.


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