Dept. Of Speculation is 46 pithy chapters that take up only 180 pages, composed entirely of short, aphoristic paragraphs and quotes that vaguely tell the story of a woman’s journey through adulthood. The characters are nameless: the wife, the husband, the daughter. The narrator, the Wife, starts as an aspiring Art Monster, and changes as she falls in love, gets married, has a daughter. The wife waxes poetic (or, aphoristic) about life’s catastrophes, from having a colicky baby, to a cheating husband, to a battle with bedbugs, juxtaposing them with larger, more philosophical events: Russian cosmonauts, the universality and surprising power of maternal love, the vague pining for the dreams of your youth. At every turn, she invokes a quote or two or three, or brings back a previously used turn of phrase, as if she’s turning a faceted gem in the light to see how many different colors it can produce.
Although I read this book quickly and loved many of the individual phrases, I had mixed feelings about it overall. The characters, although clearly drawn and passionately felt, were a little disconnected, as if you’re reading an extremely eloquent diary but don’t have the emotional context to really feel the way the author wants you to feel. The best moments were the ones where she’s describing something you already know–for instance, her way of summarizing the chaos and horror of bedbugs was disturbingly familiar and made me laugh in solidarity (bedbugs – THE WORST), and I found myself smiling at her humorous descriptions of married-life conversations and how we try to fool others into thinking more of us than we are. I can see myself going back to enjoy other sections more thoroughly later in life, when I can relate more to some of the circumstances.
This was an extremely quick read, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t insightful, eloquent, or passionate. It could be devoured in a matter of hours, or read slowly over a few days. The narrative arc wasn’t particularly ground-breaking, and I wasn’t amazed by it, but it was a solid three-star good book.