Dept. of Speculation

By Jenny Offill, published 2014

This is my second novel by Jenny Offill. The first was Weather, which I loved. I really enjoyed this novel as well, but the trouble with reviewing her books is that it’s difficult to pin down what they’re about. It’s also what makes reading them so fun.

Offill has a unique, engaging style of writing that truly pulls me into the character’s consciousness by quickly flitting from one topic to a seemingly-unrelated new topic, and again, and again. I decided to read this when it was referenced during a discussion about novels that tell the hard truths about motherhood.

In this novel (like in Empty Houses), the narrator is not named. She’s a woman who never wanted to be tied down, but falls in love and has a baby. The baby consumes her life, her relationship with her partner weakens, and they suffer the everyday complications of marriage and family. She and her husband are deliriously happy, and even more so with the birth of their daughter, but it doesn’t insulate them from problems with their home, their finances, and their devotion to each other.

The narration shifts from the woman talking to her husband: “After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again. My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.” Here Offill describes to difficult early days of caring for an infant, the narrator’s struggles to calm the baby and to maintain her own sanity in her isolation.

Then to general first-person: “Soon everyone is asleep but me. I lie in our bed and listen to the hum of the air conditioner and the soft sound of their breathing. Amazing. Out of dark waters, this.”

Then to third-person: “Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days. Also she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friend calls it.”

This slight shift in narration remains close to “the wife” but pulls the reader along until she is merely a distant character in a story. Roughly half of this short novel is about the wife’s journey back to a happy family life, while juggling writing gigs and strange acquaintances. She is a mother, a wife, a writer, a woman, but I suppose the ultimate question the book asks is: is it possible for her to be them all at once? Four stars.

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