Literary Wives: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I read this book a couple of years ago when it first came out, but it wasn’t really my thing. I didn’t ever feel connected, invested, or drawn in. The book is full of thoughts/short vignettes that make up a story. Her thoughts are beautifully written; but as a novel, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

After re-reading (or more like re-skimming, because the book only just arrived two days ago), I wasn’t as disappointed with it. I guess this time I knew what I was getting.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

This book is about a deteriorating marriage. The marriage starts off happy and hopeful, but then things begin to go south. We get bits and pieces of the details of daily life with a husband and a child; trying to comfort a colicky baby, washing chunks of vomit out of your hair, cleaning up the dinner plates. We get a clear picture of how scattered the mother feels with all the things she has to do and worry about.

The wife (she has no name) comes to feel as though she doesn’t have enough left over for herself, her writing, her career. She feels as though she’s the one making all the sacrifices.

I would give it up 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.

In addition, after everything she’s given to her family, her husband cheats on her; a sad story, but not a very surprising one.

“I think I was afraid to go all in,” she says. “Because all in is terrifying. With all in, you lose everything.”

This got me thinking about the sacrifices we make when we have children, and who makes them? In my case, I was the one to make most of them, but I chose to; I even planned to. Maybe if that had not been the case, or if I regretted my decision (which I do not), my husband and I would no longer be married? How does each couple manage to work this out?

But my agent has a theory.  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.

One thing from the book that has stayed with me all this time is the way the wife felt as a new mom; alone, with all the hours of the day stretched out before her as her husband leaves for work each day, and wondering how they will be filled.

After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again.

What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.

Even though I was a happy new mom, I can still remember how it felt every morning when my husband left and it was just me and the baby (or me and the baby and the toddler and the pre-schooler) for the rest of the day. Sometimes it felt like an eternity. Our days were so full, yet I had nothing to show for them.

A favourite line: “I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger.  “It’s for my daughter,” I said.  My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.

Because I didn’t get to fully re-read, I feel sure I missed a thousand things about what this book says about being a wife. Be sure to check out the other Literary Wives to see what they have to say! Also, enjoy this thought-provoking snippet of Roxane Gay’s review of the book in the New York Times:

“Of course he falls because he has been placed, quite grandly, on a pedestal for the wife to admire him more than actually be married to him. But maybe that is what happens in love and marriage. We admire from a distance, and we look away when we get too close and see what is actually there.” ” For better or worse, this is not so much a book about their marriage; it is a book about the wife’s marriage. It would be interesting to read the other story to this marriage, to know more of the husband, the father — but Offill still makes it seem as if the wife’s version of the marriage is story enough and, perhaps, the only story that matters. “

Next book, December 4th: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves 

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34 thoughts on “Literary Wives: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I wasn’t a big fan of this book either. The fragmentary style is interesting, but I didn’t find it as profound as so many have. I appreciated your personal reflections on the subject matter.

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I liked the style of the book more than you did. I think she was able to paint quite a detailed picture while using only fragments. And a lot of what she had to say about being a new mom resonated with me as well, especially because her daughter was not an easy baby. Reading Gay’s review had me thinking about how I would have liked the husband’s perspective. I am not convinced by her argument that he falls because he was put on a pedestal. We have no idea how he treated her; maybe she was put on a pedestal as well. But all that comes back to Gay’s final point that this is the wife’s version of the story. Whether we know what the husband was thinking and feeling or not, a story is always subjective and dependent on who tells it.

    • Naomi says:

      No, I’m not convince he was put on a pedestal either, but I would love to hear his side of the story. Although, I suspect I wouldn’t relate to it as well. Maybe if he makes it short… 🙂
      I liked the motherhood parts the best, and I also liked the curious facts she included. As a whole, I didn’t love it, but there are so many fragments I would love to quote.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I did like the style, too. I thought it was very inventive. Naomi, your insights on being a mother are very helpful to understanding this part of the book. And TJ, that is a good point about only seeing the wife’s side of the story.

  4. bookbii says:

    I remember struggling to connect with this book too, though I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. Perhaps it is one that benefits from re-reading. I’m encouraged to try it again from your revisit here.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s good to hear it wasn’t just me who couldn’t connect. But, like you, I did want to see it out, although I found the last half sometimes kind of vague.

  5. A Life in Books says:

    You’ve made me look back at my own review written back in 2014. Interestingly, we’ve picked out the same quote as a favourite. I was also interested by Roxanne Gay’s comment about it only being one version of the marriage. I wonder if those of us who are not mothers react differently to this book from those of you who are.

    • Naomi says:

      I like all the quotes you shared in your review! I had forgotten the one about how some women make it look easy to throw off ambition like an old coat. I suppose that’s maybe what made it easier for me to be content to stay home with the kids all those years. I thought of staying home with them *as* my ambition. Maybe not a lot of people think that way anymore.

  6. Grab the Lapels says:

    Your quote about having such a full day but nothing to show for it makes me appreciate moms a whole lot more, Naomi. My absolute favorite book about wives and mothers is by Kelcey Parker. It’s called For Sale By Owner. I’m wondering why all marriage stories have to be bad. Can’t one work out in the end? Even the narrator of Rebecca got her Maxim in the end…

    • Naomi says:

      You must have mentioned that one to me before, Melanie, because I’ve already got it marked as a LW possibility. 🙂
      My husband used to come home and wonder why the house didn’t look any better than when he left in the morning, and I would tell him that it takes my whole day just to make sure it doesn’t get worse!
      I have been wondering that for years (about marriage stories having to be bad), and the best reason I can come up with (or the best one I’ve heard from someone else) is that without some kind of conflict, there isn’t much of an interesting story to tell. But I’d like someone to try and prove that wrong!

  7. buriedinprint says:

    Ohhh, I meant to read along with this one. It’s been on my TBR for ages. Sigh. So many reading plans! It’s interesting that you enjoyed it more this time; expectations are such powerful critters, aren’t they?! 🙂

  8. annelogan17 says:

    I love how honest you are with this review, it reminds me that I need to write with less fear of “what people will think” when I craft my own books reviews. It sounds like I would like parts of this book too, especially the motherhood parts. Even though that woman may not have had the exact same experiences as you, I still find it incredibly comforting to read these different accounts. It’s just proof that everyone experiences motherhood differently, and there is no right or wrong way of feeling.

  9. Elena says:

    I remember the book being a huge hit when it came out some years ago, but it just did not seem my cup of tea at all. After reading your review, I now know why. Maybe one day a book where a wife is nameless won’t be regarded as such a hit.

  10. Don Royster says:

    As I read your review, it reminded me of another novel, “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham. That book made me realize how often we throw expectations at ourselves that we cannot live up to. Often our deep inner lives are very different from the faces we show to the world. Too often we try to fit ourselves into roles which we think are what everybody else is achieving. One thing I have discovered because I write about relationships so much in my stories. A marriage is like no other marriage.

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