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."

A wedding altar
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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.

Random House

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).

But, crucially, Offill complicates this storyline by including what is often edited out of the white-picket-fence version of marriage: a painful miscarriage, unfulfilled artistic ambition, the drudge of jobs, a colicky baby, tepid insecurity as a mother, the wedge parenthood drives between friends, scrutinized parenting, uncertainty over the professional sacrifices made for children, and the longing for a different kind of life away from the bourgeois draw of $13 cheese. Quintessential markers of New York City life such as getting bed bugs and perpetually running into people you don’t particularly care to see also flavor the novel.

Simplistically speaking, “woman successfully becomes a wife and a mother” and “husband cheats on wife” are stories many of us instinctively know, but it’s the innermost details of this particular life, this particular marriage, the smart humor of this wife that revitalizes two otherwise exhausted storylines. Offill moves quickly and poetically over deeply introspective questions about long-term partnerships, parenthood, and aging, weaving the daily banality of an Internet meme into the implosion of a marriage. (In the beginning of the novel, the husband shows the protagonist the “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER” meme—and later on, after he cheats, she has the realization “I CAN HAS BOYFRIEND?” It’s both hilarious and very sad.) Haunting longings to be an “art monster” resurface when the wife thinks back on what her husband will only describe as the “road not taken.”

Infidelity plunges the deeply introspective wife into an even deeper rumination (a tactic A.S.A. Harrison also expertly employed in The Silent Wife). Even as the wife seeks the counsel of history, writers, her friends and her sister, the reader enjoys a closeness with the wife that no other characters achieve as her marriage wavers. She aligns her modern marriage with those of yesteryear. “Whatever happens, keep it like the fifties. Not one word ever. Make sure she’s a nobody,” says the wife’s sister—a recurring character that gets just one line of dialogue every few years but nonetheless feels fully formed.

One of Dept. of Speculation’s many triumphs is its illumination of what really goes on in the “Little Theater of Hurt Feelings”—the wife’s term for the space in which she and her husband discuss his infidelity. The familiar stock roles in this little theater include the husband who did the cheating, the hurt wife who blames herself, and the young girl accomplice—characters familiar from films like 2010’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and the popular 2001 Italian film L'Ultimo Bacio, later remade as The Last Kiss in 2006. There is a timelessness to this particular vein of heterosexual betrayal and heartbreak. But while Offill’s characters may fit the program bill, they deviate in their desperately human exchanges, their naked bitterness. Unlike more sensationalized portrayals of infidelity and its chaos, Offill’s characters aren’t pretty when they cry.

From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.