Dept. of Speculation

Image of Dept. of Speculation
Release Date: 
January 28, 2014
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a quick, beautiful read that will draw out joy just as quickly as sadness, [embracing] both the misery and the magic of marriage.”

“At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.”


Told by the woman who is only known as “the wife,” Dept. of Speculation is a profoundly sad look at a marriage dissected with all its blood and gore and visceral beauty laid out in perfectly placed lines of prose.

Ms. Jenny Offill owns the word poignancy with her second novel. The book may be tiny, but it’s marvelously huge in insight and honesty. Rich with humor, and deep with despair, Dept. of Speculation paints a masterful portrait of the nuts and the bolts and the warts and the silky splendor that defines commitment—the commitment to live in close quarters with other humans.

“When I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

“I remember the first time I ever said the word to a stranger. ‘It’s for my daughter,’ I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.”


What woman doesn’t feel undeserved and afraid when given such a task as motherhood?

The story is not so much about the characters as it is about what makes us human. Written primarily with internal musings, Dept. of Speculation constructs only a loose image of the wife and the child and the husband, while artfully creating a tightly weaved tapestry about what keeps them together and what threatens to shred them apart.

Of love, the wife writes:

“The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)”

The wife makes this observation shortly after finding out about the husband’s affair:

“For most married people, the standard pattern is a decrease of passionate love, but an increase in deep attachment. It is thought that this attachment response evolved in order to keep partners together long enough to have and raise children.”

The wife goes on to say that in many cultures children are considered self-sufficient at six years old. And even though this might not be true in modern American culture “the age six still resonates with men.”

“. . . many men have affairs around the time their oldest child turns six.”

“. . . every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.”

But there are frequent glimpses of hope and strength and what some might refer to as true love, just keeping this novel from dropping too deeply into despair. When the wife regards her aging husband she muses:

“Hard to believe I used to think that love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, I saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But it was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness.”

Although perhaps not the best choice for the recently engaged, Dept. of Speculation is a quick, beautiful read that will draw out joy just as quickly as sadness, and may even cause one to pause and then wonder, and then to finally embrace both the misery and the magic of marriage.