A Brooklyn mother wonders how she became “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day” after her husband has an affair
Dept. of Speculation. By Jenny Offill. Vintage Contemporaries, 192 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Adultery is God’s way of telling you that you need a divorce, an old joke says. In contemporary fiction, it’s often a sign that you need to take up yoga and see a therapist. Jenny Offill turns that literary cliché into a sophisticated portrait of a Brooklyn mother blindsided by her husband’s affair in this brief, elliptical novel.
Offill’s unnamed narrator is a neurotic and demanding author and writing teacher who has the mix of insecurity and grandiosity that bedevils so many artists. “I hate often and easily,” she says. She scorns people “who sit with their legs splayed” and who “claim to give 110 percent.” When her husband takes up with an “easier” woman to handle, she appears to have no coherent set of religious, cultural, or philosophical views to sustain her and tries to cope by gathering the shards of insight that she finds in diverse beliefs or practices — Judaism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Manichaeism, cosmology, self-help books and yoga classes. In middle-age, she’s still making herself up as she goes along. How, she wonders, has she become “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day”?
A drastic step eases her turmoil but begs the question of why, throughout adulthood, she has found herself in the predicaments she has. The belated revelation that her mother died when she was young and her “father was elsewhere” is a throwaway. But her daughter is an enduring consolation. You never doubt her love for a child who, while nursing, would stare at her “with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”
Jan is a novelist, award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for news of other reviews.
Best line: “How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”
Worst line: The narrator’s comment on her and her sister’s childhood: “Their mother died when they were young. Their father was elsewhere.” These sentences, in context, tell you so little that you wonder if they reflect the misguided suggestion of an editor or other reader who believed the book needed something to explain its heroine’s neediness. Dept. of Speculation might well have benefited from that, but Offill is telling, not showing, in these lines.
Published: January 2014 (Knopf hardcover). October 2014 (Vintage Contemporaries paperback).
(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.