Imagine this chick lit: a book about a young east coast writerly woman who meets a wholesome but arty midwestern man. They fall in love, they marry, they have a child. She sinks into parenting. Him too, but less so. The baby is difficult. They get bedbugs. The baby becomes a small person. He becomes distant. She wonders what’s going on. He has an affair and admits to it. Drama and pain in equal measures. They move to the country and patch things up, but there will always be a question at the center. The book would have lots of characters, friends and family members, coming and going, conversation, cups of coffee… plenty of the woman’s internal thoughts, decisions about what to wear, descriptions of his indifference. All in all, it would be a worthwhile book and a solid seller.
Now consider the Dept. of Speculation. Jenny Offill’s book has the plot outlined above, but stripped down to snippets that move the story along while revealing the woman, the husband, the child. These snippets are carefully curated moments, each one representative. The reader is pulled in to the narrative and to the narrator’s singular voice, which is thoughtful and funny. Somehow, in far fewer words, Offill has created a much more enjoyable and memorable book in The Dept. of Speculation.
Here’s how enjoyable the writing is: I stopped every few pages to read something aloud to my husband, and he didn’t complain. One of the great joys of reading something interesting is sharing it with someone else, and it’s pretty painful when the other person just says “uh-huh,” or worse, “I’m reading here, too, you know.” So The Dept. of Speculation passes the husband test. A few (short) examples:
- The Buddhists say that there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
- Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well no, I’d say.
- Studies show that 110% of husbands who leave their wives for other women report that their wives are crazy.
- Later, when it’s time to go to bed, she puts both legs into one side of her footy pajamas and slyly waits for us to notice.
Bottom line: There’s a good reason that The Dept. of Speculation was named one of the top books of the year by so many different publications (New Yorker, New York Times… even BuzzFeed!). A definite recommend.