Literary Wives: Dept. of Speculation

It’s time for another book discussion for the Literary Wives book group (more details about us here). Dept. of Speculation was a quick book, and I easily read it just this past weekend. The story is presented as a collection of thoughts, short moments, and reflections, and I was impressed by how Offill was able to paint such a complete story in so many little snippets. It’s a unique way to tell something that is not quite as unique: Man and woman meet, get married, and have a child. Then the husband cheats on the wife, and they have to deal with the aftermath.

I really liked the first half of the book. I thought that despite the brevity, Offill perfectly captured how a relationship develops over time. At some point, butterflies give way to the everyday. Then the baby arrives, and that event changes everything all over again. I liked this part even better, because motherhood is not all fun and games. You can love being a mother 100%, and there are still shitty moments when you want to just throw in the towel and walk away. There were some funny anecdotes here, and I could relate to a lot of what was going on. The last part, when the wife has to deal with her husband’s affair, lost me a bit. I would have liked a little more detail here.

I’ve been trying to decide what this novel says about being a wife. I think it is always the case that when two people agree to share their lives, there’s change involved. And often, the change can bring resentment. When a relationship is new, it’s easy to compromise and adjust to make things work. And I think it’s only human that as a relationship loses some of its initial sparkle, it is easy to become disillusioned because some of those early, seemingly small compromises had unintended consequences—like that second book the wife in this novel never gets to write.

But then the wife doesn’t have time to write because there is now a child to focus on, and so I think the book has a lot more to say about what it means to be a mother. If there are just two adults, it is still possible to end a relationship and walk away, however hard that might be. Once there is a child, it gets a lot harder still. While I was reading about her experiences with her colicky baby, I kept wondering what someone who is not a parent might think of all the anecdotes. If someone is on the fence about having kids, I don’t think this book would convince them to have any! Yes, it is gross to have to deal with the poop and the vomit, but at least if you are a parent and you read about it, you know that there are also lots of hugs and kisses to make up for that. And there is actually a point where you can laugh about all the gross stuff to some degree.*

While I was thinking about being married and being a mom, and what it all means, I started to wonder why the character in this novel is referred to as “the wife.” I’m ok with not knowing her name; in a way, that makes her experience more universal. But why not stick with “her”? I feel like by calling her “the wife,” it makes it sound like she lost part of her identity when she got married, and that’s such a bleak way of looking at a partnership.

I also have not been able to figure out how exactly the title of the book relates to the story. Any thoughts?

Don’t forget to check out what the other members of the group have to say about the book:

 

On December 4th, we’ll be discussing A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves. Feel free to join in.

*I am profoundly grateful that my kids are now all old enough to make it to the bathroom, or at least give advance warning, before throwing up. I am also at a point now where I can laugh about the fact that more than once has my husband thrown a vomiting baby at me to flee the room before joining the kid in throwing up. Again, I think only another mother can find some humor in this and in spirit share a look that simply says “men…”. (And, in fairness, I know there are situations where husbands/fathers share a look that simply says “women…”.)

 

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16 comments

  1. Nice review. I like how you have thought about the mother/wife parts of it. Calling her “the wife” constantly does sound rather bleak overall. Marriages do change over time — it’s helpful if both can evolve with it. LOL. Cheers.

  2. On reading this as not a parent (who is regularly in discussions over whether or not I’ll ever be): I feel like the colicky/sick/gross parts of mothering didn’t come across nearly as loud as as the “I love her so so much” parts of parenting. I was almost put off by how much the “parenting is the best.thing.ever” narrative was reenforced. That said, I love my career and at this point I’m not willing to give it up for a kid — a choice we see the narrator make (well, not even intentionally make, more like … an ongoing unfulfilled desire). So I probably had a biased read on the narrator’s love for her child, because I couldn’t stop thinking about that unwritten second novel.

    • Your take on the motherhood part is so interesting. You heard first and foremost “being a mother is wonderful,” and I heard first and foremost “mothering comes with so much gross stuff.” Prime example for how our own background can influence our reaction to a story.

  3. It’s so interesting to read about your response to this book, especially your comments about the changes and developments in the central relationship. I have to admit that you got a lot more out of it than I did at the time of reading! (It’s a year or so since I read it, so quite a few of the details have gone from my mind now.) That said, I did like her prose style – each individual fragment was beautifully written.

    • I wish that I had felt as strongly about the second half as I did about the first half. I’m sure I liked the beginning so much because there was a lot that I could relate to. Thankfully, I can’t relate to having to deal with a cheating spouse!

  4. I agree – I thought the first half was stronger than the second. Her observations about motherhood and babyhood were spot on. And her scattered mommy brain.
    I also struggled to figure out what the book had to say about being a wife. Which is how I got on to sacrifices, because I think, in most cases still (in my experience, anyway) it’s the wife/mother who has to figure out how to have something carved out for herself on top of everything else that needs to be done. And everything changes dramatically after having a baby, but you can also feel more trapped in your marriage than you did before. What happens next all kind of depends on how adaptable the marriage is.

  5. There’s an explanation of the title, but I can’t quite remember it. It has to do with a joke between the couple about things they filed under “Dept. of Speculation.” Filed metaphorically, I think.

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