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3.9 out of 5 stars
Dept. of Speculation
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105 of 114 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine 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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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
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. She describes this relatively mundane story of a marriage in crisis in a way that's never been done. And that's what makes this novel really notable.

When Offill is telling about the bed bugs, she includes snippets about astronauts feeling trapped and confined to convey how the wife and her husband felt in their apartment. She includes short lines of philosophy to capture a mood. And she includes a description of the German word kummerspeck, which literally means "grief bacon," but is used to describe overeating due to emotional trauma (my favorite part of the novel). She makes jokes, "I have an intern. All of my life now appears to be one happy moment." She includes actual jokes ("Why couldn't the Buddhist vacuum in corners? Because she had no attachments.") She tells anecdotes. She yells at us. She whispers to us. It really is just mesmerizing.

If you've never heard of Offill or this novel, I'd highly recommend it, just for a reading experience you won't find every day. Again, because this is very short, it's rather a low-risk, very high-reward prospect. This is one of the first highly buzzed novels of 2014, and my guess is that you'll find it is, indeed, rewarding.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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. Packed with many quotes and references literary and otherwise, it is a story that challenges readers to think and make associations even as the basic plot unfolds. There are delicate and beautiful passages: “I would give up everything for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen. If she would lie quietly with me, if I could bury my face in her hair, yes, then, yes, uncle” --- and devastating ones as well: “the wife has been teaching for twenty years. It is not the first time she's been at the bedside of someone with bandaged wrists.”

Both as delicate and tough as the love it examines, DEPT. OF SPECULATION is so short that it could be read in one delicious sitting. But it should be savored again and again, with various passages and ideas striking the reader in different ways each time. Offill's prose is simple, but the novel is complex, emotional, astonishing, and occasionally even stunning. The fragmentary nature of the storytelling makes the book all the more realistic, reading often like one side of a very intimate and brutally honest conversation. Profound, beautiful and wise, this is a truly masterful offering from a very talented author.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
... by the lyrical praise of the august taste makers at the New York times .."shimmering, breathtaking, joyously demanding" and Vanity Fair - "A startling feat of story telling..." and the New Yorker "Powerful...Exquisite". Fortunately it is short. So are the sentences and fragments that make up the short chapters and the references to lines from writers and poets." Non linear, train of thought, stream of consciousness, a style of which I am not particularly fond. The writer ("the wife", as she calls herself) is about a 1/2 bubble of off plumb and getting worse - the book is sort of like watching a mental train wreck - but fortunately she seems to be coming together toward the end. Wide range of ratings on this one. To each his own, I guess, but not my cup of tea.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
The narrator, the wife, fears that her heart still has "such crookedness" despite her loving her husband and daugter so deeply. This book enchanted me with its lovely language and with the fearless moral inventory that the wife conducts on herself. The author has a deft hand with words and often captured the exact feeling of a moment. The wife is a fully imagined woman who is able to describe her husband and daughter with word pictures that include the reader in her experience. The crisis this marriage faces is drawn skillfully and without extra pathos or drama. I enjoyed the book immensely.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Jenny Offill has written a small but rich book about marriage and motherhood. She examines life before and after having a child, along with the ups and downs of her marriage. She brings other writers into the book including Einstein, Rilke, Kafka, and Berryman. From them, she takes wisdom and gains courage.

The woman in the novel is known as 'the wife' and she states "There is still much crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it." What she finds is that her path winds ever more complexly, having a husband a child in her nuclear center.

At one time, the wife wanted a life in art and had and 'art monster plan' but now she cares for her child and husband and teaches in a college. "Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits." This is not the case for the wife. It is a difficult transition for her and there are many ups and downs and difficulties in navigating the relationship with her husband.

The style of writing is not very accessible and a lot of the important information is between the lines or what the reader thinks about after reading a section. The sections are very small, some only one or two sentences. All of it is written from the wife's perspective. There is a lot that I just don't get though I read it very carefully. What I especially enjoyed were the readings from the poets, writers and philosophers that were brought in to the book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 28, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
When I first glimpsed this book, I was taken aback by how slight and insubstantial it seemed. With the postmarked cover, it could be mistaken for an overstuffed envelope. Then I turned the page, and was sucked into the lyrical writing of Jenny Offill, verbal equivalent of those intricately painted miniatures that make you wonder how anyone can render such potent images with such delicate strokes.

I've read the book twice. War and Peace it is not. Each time, I polished it off in less than an hour. The second time, I started writing down my favorite lines, many of them pertaining to motherhood. "Caring for her [daughter] required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious." But Offill does not confine herself to one area: she sprinkles her magic dust over a wide range of topics. In chapters that range from about 1-3 pages in length, she hops from one observation to another. In chapter 3, for example, she covers blue jays and birdsong, New York sightseeing, and this overarching comment: "the Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three."

Until I reached page 100, I was ready to buy a copy of this book for everyone I knew, especially new/expectant parents. But at that point the narrative takes a turn for the unfortunate, with the protagonist's dive into marital unhappiness. The voice becomes scratchy with irritation and self-righteousness bordering on outrage. The contrast to the earlier part of the book is jarring, and my powerful attraction to the mood of those first chapters dissolves under the harsh lights of the Theater of Hurt Feelings.

Dept of Speculation has a happy ending, of sorts, but that's small consolation because it feels artificial, as if all gut-wrenching problems can be erased by exchanging the stresses of the big city for the country, a puppy, a red-winged blackbird. It's still a gem of a book, but one whose rough edges could have used more polishing.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 12, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is really not a novel, but what seemed to me to be a diary of a marriage which started out well enough but seemed to fall through the cracks as the couple grew older and their expectations of one another changed. I finished it in just one hour and felt that I'd been listening to some acquaintances discussing their own marriages and what was good and what was not so good. I would not recommend this book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2015
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
What an unlikeable, unreliable narrator. I assume the writing style was meant to be some sort of artful obtuseness, but it merely came across as sloppy writing. There are a handful of really great, insightful lines in this book - hence, the two stars. But it mostly just made me think I'd need Botox if the book were much longer because my brow was furrowed in annoyed disbelief during most of the time I spent reading it. There were actually a few things about the narrator that I identified rather strongly with as I read, but I just finished the book and I already can't remember what they were. I checked Kindle's "% read" function frequently, trying to gauge if there was still time for it to get better. There wasn't.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2015
Format: Paperback
Saw this book on the NYT best of 2014 list. Couldn't put it down. I read it so quickly I felt guilty for not fully savoring the words Ms. Offill clearly must have put a great deal of time into conceiving. Most folks will find that some of her relationship analysis hits a little close to home, but she puts it all so beautifully. Another reviewer characterized the book as having so many "snippets of truth," which I think is spot on. I will definitely re-read the book. Full disclosure: this is the first fiction book I've read in a very long while, and I am struck by how much I've been missing by limiting myself to non-fiction!
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