I fall in love with books sometimes. I become so attached to them that I can’t even articulate well why I’m so in love with them. They’re just a part of me now, and I will defend them and recommend them to anyone and everyone. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is such a book. So is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This week I’ve found another book to fall in love with: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.
Slim, devastating, funny, profound; these are words I would use to describe this novel. Others have used: experimental, radiant, powerful, exquisite. My favorite review of it from a Goodreads user says this: “6 stars. I’m doing my inarticulate book-clutching thing.” That’s precisely what I do when I fall in love with a book – clutch it to my metaphoric bosom and sigh and grasp for words.
Dept. of Speculation is “experimental” in that Offill tells the story in short paragraphs with lots of open space on the page, letting her readers fill in gaps and make connections themselves. But the narrative remains fluid and propulsive. It’s about many things: women as artists, marriage, motherhood, living in New York City, bedbugs, thinking too much, getting older, the vastness of space. The greatness of this novel is not so much in the story itself as it is in the way that she tells it. The connections Offill makes from the particular and intimate to the universal and expansive are just brilliant.
There are devastating sentences. Like this one, about the difficulties of parenting:
“Of course it is difficult. You are creating a creature with a soul, my friend says.”
Or this one, which resonates so much with me, an over-thinker, married with one child:
“There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”
One Goodreads review says, “I underlined basically the entire novel.” I feel the same way, like Jenny Offill has peered inside my brain and taken my mashed-up tangle of feelings and thoughts and straightened them out and made them pretty and profound on the page. I read it twice; started it again right after I finished it. It’s such a fast read that I wanted to go back and make sure I didn’t miss anything. I wanted to make sure that I read what I thought I’d read, which is one of the best books published last year.