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.