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Dept. of Speculation Hardcover – January 28, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

This is a magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts. Offill, author of the novel Last Things (1999) and various children’s books, covers this shifting terrain and its stormy weather in an exquisitely fine-tuned, journal-like account narrated by “the wife,” an ironic self-designation rooted in her growing fears about her marital state. She is smart if a bit drifty, imaginative and selectively observant, and so precisely articulate that her perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings. And she is mordantly funny, a wry taxonomist of emotions and relationships. Her dispatches from the fog of new motherhood are hilarious and subversive. Her cynical pursuit of self-improvement is painfully accurate. Her Richter-scale analysis of the aftershocks of infidelity is gripping. Nothing depicted in this portrait of a family in quiet disarray is unfamiliar in life or in literature, and that is the artistic magic of Offill’s stunning performance. She has sliced life thin enough for a microscope slide and magnified it until it fills the mind’s eye and the heart. --Donna Seaman


“A novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors. If it is a distressed account of a marriage in distress, it is also a poem in praise of the married state. If it brutally tears apart the boredom and frustrations of parenthood, it also solidly inhabits the joys and consolations of having a child. If it laments the work not done, the books not written, the aspirations unfulfilled, it also represents work well done, a book written, the fruit of aspiration . . . It is often extremely funny, and often painful; earnestly direct but glancingly ironic, even whimsical . . . Offill’s narrator is curious, witty, intellectual, literary, insomniac, and rawly honest both about others and about herself. She is invigorating company, but won’t go out of her way to make herself charming or genial. She is thin-skinned, fatigued, and full of embattled chagrin. In short, she is alive . . . Reminiscent at times of Lydia Davis’s short texts . . . Its depth and intensity make a stealthy purchase on the reader . . . Offill’s brief book eschews obvious grandeur. It does not broadcast its accomplishments for the cosmos but tracks the personal and domestic and local, a harrowed inner space. It concentrates its mass acutely, with exquisite and painful precision.”
            —James Wood, The New Yorker 

“Slender, quietly smashing . . . The story shifts and skitters, spare but intricate as filigree, short bursts of observation and memory—comic, startling, searing—floating in white space . . . Offill has tapped a vein directly into the experience of this marriage, this little family, this subsuming of self, and we mainline it right along with her . . . A book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.”
            —Boston Globe 
“Breathtaking . . . Reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat but with a less bitter edge . . . Dept. of Speculation charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose . . . Moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others . . . Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing . . . She deftly moves the novel forward with elegant shifts of point of view.”
            —The New York Times Book Review
“Riveting . . . Unsentimental . . . Combines eclectic minutia with a laser-like narrative of a family on the edge of dissolution . . . Paragraphs shatter, surreal details rise up and into the narrative . . . A jewel of a book, a novel as funny, honest, and beguiling as any I have read.”
            —Los Angeles Times 

“Offill’s unnamed heroine . . . has a lot in common with the narrators of [Renata Adler’s] Speedboat and [Elizabeth Hardwick’s] Sleepless Nights: she is observant and literary minded, given to seeing the odd connections (or lack of connections) among the things that make up her day-to-day life and the more subterranean thoughts that jitter around in her head. She also has a lot in common with Joan Didion’s heroines . . . A genuinely moving story of love lost and perhaps, provisionally, recovered.”
            —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Absorbing and highly readable . . . Offill has successfully met the challenge she seems to have given herself: write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And do it in a series of bulletins, fortune-cookie commentary, mordant observations, lyrical phrasing. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone’s domestic life . . . Intriguing, beautifully written, sly, and often profound.”
            —Meg Wolitzer, NPR

“Introspective and resonant . . . Brave . . . Offill uses her novel to explore the question of how to be an artist as well as a wife and mother, when these states can feel impossibly contradictory . . . She’s willing to put it all on the page, the mundane alongside the profound, revealing that they’re not quite as different as we might have thought.”
            —San Francisco Chronicle

“Audacious . . . Hilarious . . . Dept. of Speculation reveals a raw marital reality that continues to be expunged from the pervasive narrative of marriage . . . Offill moves quickly and poetically over deeply introspective questions about long-term partnerships, parenthood, and aging . . . From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is a complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.”
            —The Atlantic

Dept. of Speculation is a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity, and sweetness . . . A shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don’t quite understand, until they give in and read it too.”         
            —The Guardian 

Dept. of Speculation is a startling feat of storytelling—an intense and witty meditation on motherhood, infidelity, and identity, each line a dazzling, perfectly chiseled arrowhead aimed at your heart.”
            —Vanity Fair
“Offill somehow manages to pack the sprawling story of an ordinary marriage, both the good bits and the bad, into a small, poetic book. Rendered entirely in a series of staccato vignettes, Dept. of Speculation is told from the point of view of the bookish, funny wife . . . Yes, there’s joylessness here, but there’s also real joy. Grade: A-.”
            —Entertainment Weekly 

“Brilliant, risk-taking . . . Mesmerizing . . . Infinitely quotable . . . Dept. of Speculation is astute and affecting on the politics of relationships and the burdens of day-to-day living; of children, work, and the feeling that life is passing us by. Offill has created a masterpiece that is philosophical, funny, and moving. This is a book that’s not easily forgotten.”       
            —Irish Times

“Poetic in its beauty and intensity . . . Very funny . . . In this slim, beautiful work, the short paragraphs read as a series of carefully crafted vignettes, linked yet strong enough to stand alone . . . Every one of these short paragraphs carries weight: each is a thought, an observation, snatches of banal conversation, a weird fact. Everything matters here, from the lofty to the banal . . . It is about life, unvarnished, yet every bit of it made profound by Offill’s glorious prose.”
            —Financial Times

“Quirky, endearing, affecting and deep. And did I mention funny? Dept. of Speculation spends its days and nights perfectly navigating that Lilliputian line between comedy and tragedy. More quilt than book, it is a pastiche of small pieces . . . A reader is rapidly drawn to its one-paragraph vignettes, sayings and poems, its quick literary references and quotes . . . We are captivated. We cannot help ourselves. We laugh, we clap, we cry with the wife. We find, in Dept. of Speculation, moments that take our breath away. And we recognize parts of ourselves in its pages.”
            —The Buffalo News

“Hilarious, poignant . . . So beautifully written that it begs multiple reads . . . Soul-bearing fiction at its best . . . Dept. of Speculation doesn’t just resign itself to the disappointment of failed dreams that crop up in middle age. Instead, endurance to the end of a crisis generates wisdom, hope, and, perhaps, even art.” 
            —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

“Jenny Offill’s mini marvel of a novel, about an urban marriage in crisis, unfolds in tart, tiny chapters suffused with pithy philosophical musings, scientific tidbits, and poetic sayings that collectively guide a brainy, beleaguered couple through the tricky emotional terrain of their once wondrous, now wobbly union.”
“A book of constant surprise . . . It’s impossible to keep from returning to sections to savor them . . . It’s impossible to put the book down . . . The complex brilliance of Offill is very difficult to write about. There are adjectives like funny, unsettling, daring, poetic, poignant, and insightful to describe the power of her tiny book. They aren’t enough. They simply are not.”
            —Anniston Star

“Piercingly honest . . . A series of wry vignettes that deepen movingly.”
“Winsome . . . Wry . . . Lovely . . . Offill is a poetic, piercing writer.”
            —USA Today 

“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 . . . 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.”
            —New York Journal of Books

“Closely observed . . . Brilliant . . . Such observed moments of boredom, joy, and terror are the triumph of this novel, spilling the panic, pain, and confusion of marriage and motherhood on to the page.”
“Nothing short of stunning . . . Dept. of Speculation is a thousand small moments of rage, beauty, grief, and joy. In its few pages, it captures the overpowering emotional resonance of everyday existence . . . Offill reveals what we are at our core.”
            —Victoria Advocate 

“Very beautiful and funny and wise . . . Manages to hop elegantly from Kafka to Eliot, from Frederick Cook to Russian astronauts.”
            —The Barnes & Noble Review

“Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises . . . Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it’s her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read.”
            —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts . . . So precisely articulate that [Offill's] perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings. And she is mordantly funny, a wry taxonomist of emotions and relationships . . . She has sliced life thin enough for a microscope and magnified it until it fills the mind's eye and the heart."

“Exquisitely honed and vibrant . . . The reader easily identifies with [the narrator’s] struggles and frustrations . . . An enlightened choice for a reading group.”
            —Library Journal

“If Rainer Maria Rilke had written a novel, it might look something like this . . . Lyrical . . . Philosophically rich . . . Moments of literary experimentation worthy of Virginia Woolf.”

“Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation resembles no book I’ve read before. If I tell you that it’s funny, and moving, and true; that it’s as compact and mysterious as a neutron; that it tells a profound story of love and parenthood while invoking (among others) Keats, Kafka, Einstein, Russian cosmonauts, and advice for the housewife of 1896, will you please simply believe me, and read it?”
            —Michael Cunningham
 “Dept. of Speculation is gorgeous, funny, a profound and profoundly moving work of art. Jenny Offill is a master of form and feeling, and she gets life on the page in new, startling ways.”
            —Sam Lipsyte
“A heartbreaking and exceptional book by a writer who doesn't settle for less—I’ve been longing for a new novel from Jenny Offill since her stunning Last Things, and it was worth every bit of the wait. Sad, funny, philosophical, at once deeply poetic and deeply engaging, this is a brilliant, soulful elegy to the hardships and joys of married life.”
            —Lydia Millet

“Dept. of Speculation is a deep, funny, and beautifully written novel. It is a moving and intelligent story of a specific marriage, but it is also very much about how it feels to be alive right now. Jenny Offill perfectly captures the absurdities and ironies of our moment.”
            —Dana Spiotta

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (January 28, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385350813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385350815
  • Product Dimensions: 4.7 x 0.9 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (296 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,066 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

117 of 127 people found the following review helpful By M.Jacobsen TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 22, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I should begin by saying this novel by Jenny Offill is not the kind of fare I would normally read and I only picked it up at the insistent urging of several friends. The average reader might categorize this short (160 pages) novel as very 'literary' or artsy in format, but bear with me for a few moments...

This is the story (in my opinion, at least) of a woman on the verge of a breakdown. We never know her name for she only ever refers to herself as "the wife." The story is presented to us as a series of what might be seen as journal entries, but I came to see them as just plain thoughts. Her thoughts as they popped into her head. So we only see things from her point of view. We learn that she is a college professor, married with one child ("the girl"), lives in New York and is very, very unfulfilled in her life.

Then, a marital crisis.

The book is easily read in one afternoon. As I noted at the start of this review, this format (random thoughts) is not my normal chosen fare in books. Yet I found myself captivated. This was a woman in crisis. She isn't entirely sympathetic (who amongst us is perfect?), but neither is she to blame. Like so many wives and mothers, she is questioning the direction her life took (although she would lay down her life for her child). Because it is written in 'thought format' the book feels, at first, disjointed. But as I kept reading it occurred to me that my own thoughts are often disjointed in the same manner. I was slipping into her head, if that makes sense.

Ultimately, the end of the book provides no answers to these dilemmas we face. But the book itself is so chock-full of snippets of truth that I find I must now go back and re-read the book, this time with a notebook and pen at hand. While I've never considered myself a fan of edgy, artsy (not a real word, I know) literary fiction, this book surprised me. I'm impressed.
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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Zimmerman on January 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation (out today) is a really hard novel about which to write anything coherent. First of all, it's not really a novel — it's closer to a long short story. As well, it's closer to a piece of modern art in words than it is a novel. And like a painting you stare at with relaxed eyes until meaning reveals itself, as you read these short snippets of text, of quotes from philosophers and scientists, and of actual story, an affecting tale of a marriage in trouble rises to the surface. Then, before you know it (it's only 176 pages, and it's really much shorter than that), it's over and you're paging through it again to remind yourself what a truly unique book this is.

The story is about a woman living in New York City who marries a musician. The nameless woman is a published novelist, but has failed to produce a second book, and is ghost writing a memoir of a cheesy failed astronaut to help pay the bills. Her husband is a musician.

They have a daughter. They get bed bugs in their small NYC apartment. The woman's sister and friends husbands' have affairs.

"She says 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.”

Her husband has an affair. The wife nearly loses her mind. She reads an adultery book, and they go to counseling, which she dubs The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. They work at reconciliation. They reconcile.

And that's it. But that's SO not it.

One of the measures of a really talented writer, a writer I'll read no matter what s/he is writing about, is one that can describe something in a way no one has before. And that's what Offill does here.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on February 12, 2014
Format: Hardcover
“Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business,” writes Jenny Offill about halfway through her inventive and amazing new novel, DEPT. OF SPECULATION. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and motherhood, it is, despite its brevity and economy of words, a deeply philosophical exploration of self. The narrator (though there is a shift to third-person narrative at one point) is an unnamed teacher, writer, mother and wife looking back over the relationships and decisions of her adult life and contemplating the complexity, difficulty and joy of it all.

Her plan, confirmed by the Post-It note above her desk that read “work, not love!” was to live her life as an art monster, concerning herself only with art and not the stuff of ordinary life. But a romance that included travel and the sharing of personal stories became a marriage, and soon the two were joined by an intense baby girl with dark eyes and sweet-smelling hair. Dreams of a life spent creating turns into a life spent grading and the thrill of travel traded in for a city apartment with an infestation problem. The art monster becomes a woman whose time is consumed with diapers and preschool, bedtime stories and broken bones. Yet it is in those mundane moments that the story soars, questioning the day to day and capturing the tension between contentment and yearning for more. When the narrator's husband's infidelity comes to light, she must assess her marriage and decide what is of most value to her as she struggles to decide whether she can forgive or not.

Offill's sparse style is jarring at first, but readers soon settle into the lyrical rhythm of the novel, which is less traditional narrative and more connected observations, statements and declarations of emotion put into chronological order.
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