Writer Anne Helen Petersen has a feature at the end of her weekly-ish newsletter that she calls "this week's just trust me." It's a link with no explanation other than her assurance, and almost invariably, I click it. With books that seem to defy adequate explanation or description, I often wish I could provide a link and a just trust me. Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation is one such title. It is brilliant and bold and does everything I imagine Marriage Story does but better. (Full Disclosure: I have not seen the movie, but books are always better).
The book is the story of a marriage, but not exactly. More specifically, it's the story of a mother in a marriage and the ways a woman might be simultaneously reduced and expanded in and by both institutions. At the beginning of the book, the unnamed narrator is "I" and her mate is "You." Very quickly, the most prominent pronoun in the fragments is "We," and then just as suddenly, "She" appears, and the "I" and the "She" take up almost all the room. And just like that, a lightning bolt of recognition, an almost-painful realization of similarity resonates through readers, especially those who suffer from the same fierce and consuming mother-love.
My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn't know them.
The narrator doesn't know any of those songs. Maybe they didn't exist until Jenny Offill decided to write one, and Dept. of Speculation is what came out. It is a song that takes your breath, at once familiar and strangely new, and if you're like me, it will be stuck in your head, playing on repeat, forcing you to reckon with it for all of your days
Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I'd say.
Back to pronouns and structures and fragmentations (of narrative, of self): Almost without noticing, "You" becomes "My husband" a distancing that is not at all like "my sister" who is never anything but "my sister" and always speaks truth.
My sister shakes her head at this story. "You have a kid-glove marriage," she says.
She's moving to England. That bastard husband of hers.
"She" is often "my daughter" and rarely "our daughter" and then in a blink, the narrator becomes "the wife." There is "the husband" and "the daughter" and everything has changed and nothing has. And then the book ends, and I won't say more about that except to say it is both a held breath and a restoration, and overall, I wish you'd just trust me and read the book.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Pride and Prejudice remix is going to have a readership. Fans of Jane Austen are notorious for their willingness to embrace a retelling of the classic story of Elizabeth Bennet and William (nobody calls him that) Darcy. And with the new film version of Emma opening in a few weeks, Austen is perhaps set to enjoy another resurgence. I've spent the last several weeks revisiting the great one's work and her spinoffs which led me to Ibi Zoboi's Pride, published in 2018.
Pride is mostly about Zuri Benitez in the summer before her senior year in high school. Of course, it's also about her older sister Janae and her wild younger sisters and the boys who move in across the street - brothers the same age as Janae and Zuri, brothers with money and lots of it, brothers who just happen to be beautiful.
If you know the story of Pride and Prejudice, you already know what happens, at least the broad strokes, but that knowledge won't keep you from enjoying this completely fresh take on what happens when two very different people end up trying to figure each other out. The best parts of the book are when Zuri is sharing her hopes and fears - those most true realities of a particular time in a young person's life. What good work am I meant to do in this world and with whom will I do it? How is possible to love my home more than the air I breathe and simultaneously want to leave it? Why does everything always have to change? These are familiar concerns, as constant as traffic noise near a busy highway, but in Zoboi's capable hands, they don't feel trite. Instead, she complicates the narrative with considerations of gentrification, culture, and pride - but not the kind Darcy is usually accused of.
Zuri is proud of her neighborhood. When she talks about Bushwick, it's like hearing a new mother describe some fascinating change in her child's development:
The streets are fully alive as a hot summer night sets in, loud with the sounds of the wheels on a shopping cart rolling across jagged sidewalks, the J train passing by on the aboveground tracks on Broadway, and hip-hop and reggaeton dancing out of someone's open window. (14)
She's proud of her family - her Papi's quiet wisdom, her Mama's generous hospitality, Janae's genuine goodness; she's even proud of her younger sisters, even when they embarrass or annoy her. Marisol is maybe too aggressive, known for her interest in money, but even though "the whole room sighs" when she announces "there are two ways to examine the institution of marriage," we all lean in a bit as she goes on
It can mean either that marriage is the false notion that love is forever and a woman is left to depend on her husband for financial support, or that two incomes are better than one. Love is abstract. Money is not. (18-19)
And we're left feeling like Money Love Mari is the one who knows what's up.
Zoboi also infuses the whole book with a warmth and sweetness that is somewhat unexpected. For all the bite and sting Zuri throws at Darius, there is also the softness she shows for Madrina and the respect she gives to Ochún and the bembé ceremonies and the gooey, sugary quality of her changing relationship with Darius. Zuri - like Bushwick - is all these things: alive and loud, quiet and scared, changing and ever-resistant to the change.
One question with retellings is whether a familiarity with the original is required to truly enjoy the new version. In this case, the answer is decidedly no. While the little zings of recognition are fun, this book is one you could easily hand to high school students, many of whom who would see themselves in Zuri without ever knowing she is a contemporary stand-in for Elizabeth Bennet.
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