Review: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

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Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space. 

I heard a lot about Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation earlier in the year when it was released, but it kind of slipped off my list of things to look out for until it came out in paperback this month. This is the story of a marriage. No one has a name, just titles: wife, husband, daughter, dog. In just 177 pages, Offill fills up so much space. She fills it with witty observations, with emotional truths, with the ups and downs of relationships, with fears and love and words.

As I read, I realized that the lack of any formal names not only didn’t matter, but allowed Offill to play with language in an incredible way. The story starts out in first person, narrated by the wife. As it goes on and she realizes that her marriage and life as she knows it is in trouble, she notes that she feels like she is floating outside of her body, watching it all happen. Shortly after this observation, the story switches to third person. The narrator begins calling the woman “she” and “the wife,” which offers a unique perspective for the reader. It’s like the wife really IS floating outside, and now narrates the story from an outsider’s perspective.

This also led me to a question: Do we feel more sympathetic to first person narrators? There’s more of a personal feeling to a story in the first person. Not that there’s no connection in third person novels, but to me it’s stronger in first person since it feels more like a real person is telling it.

Jenny Offill’s tiny novel is masterfully written and beautifully told. While there’s not much in the way of actual plot, the observations and thought throughout is more than enough to keep the pages turning.

If you liked Alexis Smith’s Glaciers, you’ll be sure to love Dept. of Speculation. If you’re just looking for something refreshing and short, this is for you, too!

But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.

What are you reading this Monday?

3 comments

    1. A lot of people feel this way, I was surprised! I once had someone tell me they feel like first person narrators ruin the book, especially in the case of something like The Hunger Games and TFIOS, because obviously (in most cases) the person telling the story will be fine.

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