On Recognition and Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation

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.


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

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