Book Review: Dept. of Speculation

-written by Hearth Member, Marika McCoola

Eight readers gathered this past Wednesday to discuss Jenny Offill’s novel The Dept. of Speculation. This slim, poetic novel, is very much written as stream of consciousness, with the narrator looking at her life and reflecting on the changes to her identity as she tries to figure out her roles as wife and mother. This first person narration made it difficult for many readers to separate the narrator from the author. Which brings me to wonder if this often happens for first person narratives, or only those that are realistic and very much “in the head of the character.” For those interested in the links between the narrator and the author, check out this NPR interview.

March 2016 Book ClubAt chapter 22, the point of view switches from first person to third, only returning to first for the last page. Many read this as a mental breakdown or the narrator being overcome by a mental illness with which she’d been struggling. While some thought the narrator was struggling with mental illness from page one, others simple found her to be a person who is too smart for her own good, and overwhelmed by changes in her life and familial roles. Because of this, we thought it’d be interesting to read companion books that chronicled the same period but from the point of view of the husband and daughter. What would these points of view reveal about the narrator? The shift in point of view also made us wonder about internal point of view; when do we view ourselves in the third person (for example, when we berate ourselves) versus the first? Someone mentioned hearing an audio story about this and if you can find it, please post it in the comments so we can listen!

Due to the conciseness of the text, poetic lines, and a sprinkling of facts throughout, a few readers read with an eye toward craft (something that’s become recurrent in our discussions). Does the fact that both Offill and Saunders are professors have any bearing on this? Or does it have more to do with the selections and formats of what we’re reading? We also considered this theatrically. As the narration is, to quote an attendee, a “transcript of someone’s head,” it would work well as a theatrical monologue.

As we discuss each month’s title, other book recommendations invariably come up. Here are some from this discussion: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and Lonely City by Olivia Laing. Our next book, for April, comes highly recommend by one of our attendees: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And, on the subject of book recommendations, we will be making a book recommendation zine this fall, so start making a list of your favorite books now!

We know many others read along with us and we’d love to see your thoughts. Please post your comments and questions about the book below!

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