Occasionally I’ll read a book so thoroughly impressive that I instantly commit to tracking down the rest of the author’s work. That was my experience with Jenny Offill’s remarkable Weather, which immediately propelled her previous novel, Dept. of Speculation (2014), onto my uncontrollable to-read stack. It didn’t wow me quite as much, but it also did nothing to quell my interest in Offill’s unique voice.
The title sounds science fictional, but Dept. of Speculation is a mainstream novel, with a subject that perhaps couldn’t be more mainstream: marriage. It chronicles, in Offill’s efficient, precise style, the journey of one (autobiographical?) marriage, from its stable early days to parenthood to adultery and turmoil. It doesn’t sound terribly involved in summary, but Offill’s approach — telling the story in concise paragraphs with rapid-fire scene breaks that frequently reorient on new moments or insights — gives the simple framework surprising breadth and depth. The result is a short, briskly paced novel that ricochets enticingly through the protagonist’s headspace, reflecting on a nuanced relationship encountering age-old difficulties. Offill isn’t a science fiction writer, but her style — a thought-provoking blend of poetry and social commentary — resonates with what-if possibilities and thinky observations, which make her work feel specfic-adjacent in an interesting and compelling way.