When a Marriage Plot Doesn't Mean a Happy Ending

Looking back on a troubled union, Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation nails the mundane intimacy and emotional complexity of married life after the "happily ever after."
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Random House 

Ever since the days of Jane Austen, pop culture consumers have been drawn to stories about female protagonists who find "happily ever after" in marriage and motherhood. (See: the media spectacles surrounding Kate Middleton’s fairytale wedding and now fairytale baby; the storylines of best-selling novels like Helen Fielding’s Austen-inspired Bridget Jones novels and the works of Jennifer Weiner; films and TV shows like 2011’s Friends With Kids and even HBO’s Sex and the City—a series originally deemed celebratory of single women.)

The “marriage plot” has, thankfully, been scrutinized and questioned by some of the aforementioned works—and was perhaps most specifically critiqued by Jeffrey Eugenides’s best-selling 2011 novel The Marriage Plot. Nevertheless, selective omission has successfully kept this perfect, neatly two-dimensional story—of the heterosexual single woman finding happiness by becoming single no longer, welcoming a child, and creating a family—intact.

Which is why Jenny Offill’s new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published a tidy 15 years after the release of her highly praised debut novel Last Things, is so audacious. Dept. of Speculation reveals a raw marital reality that continues to be expunged from this pervasive narrative of marriage. Offill’s work is a story about marital infidelity, but it keenly avoids the melodramatic conventions of fictionalized cheating, as Offill’s work operates on such a quiet landscape of marriage—of the simple day to day. Like Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and Sylvia Plath’s Doubletake (her long-lost manuscript about her husband’s infidelity), Dept. of Speculation looks back on a marriage in its entirety, its hindsight tinged with devastation. 

The book’s female protagonist, a writer referred to only as “the wife,” switches from first person to second person to third as she recounts her marriage and then motherhood. Dept. of Speculation takes its title from the faux return address from which both the husband and wife write letters to each other. The wife does indeed speculate on much throughout the course of her marriage—including her husband’s eventual infidelity.

The novel opens on a rainy trip to Paris some time before “the wife” becomes a wife, and here Offill delicately distills her protagonist’s memories: moments where she is alone in her Brooklyn apartment, menial freelance writing jobs, her 29th birthday party. The scenes from her early adult life are crisply preserved—a single sentence, a single frame of a boyfriend on her doorstep, and beer bottles that she peels the labels off of. But despite the rotating presence of multiple lovers, Offill’s protagonist addresses an early preoccupation and awareness for how the lives of creative women, like herself, often stray from the plan:

My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

Despite that disclaimer, the narrative shifts to second person; suddenly there is a “you” in the novel—the protagonist’s eventual husband. A “you” who calls, a “you” who invites her over, a “you” who plays for songs for her on the radio. The distinction is instant as with the narrative switch, Offill establishes an intimacy, a pivotal difference from the other men who dot the novel. Much like the aforementioned memories, their New York City courtship is also purified into intimate moments of inside jokes, of bus rides, of impulse gum purchases. The couple’s entire wedding is captured as one sweetly stolen moment:

Afterwards, we ducked into the borrowed room, fell back onto the borrowed bed. Outside, almost everyone who’d ever loved us waited. You took my hand, kissed it, saying, “What have we done? What the hell have we done?”

What ensues is a catalog of the preciously mundane; a classic timeline of marriage, house, and baby (and eventually the extra-marital affair).

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Koa Beck

Koa Beck is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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