The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for infidelity

Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation will help those who find themselves in the same leaky vessel to feel less abjectly alone

Click to follow

Ailment: Infidelity

Cure: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

When a partner strays, it can inflict a blow so damaging that the relationship seems doomed to go under. Is it possible to recover from an affair, however transient? And how do we navigate the turbulent emotions in its wake? Jenny Offill's account of an infidelity in the marriage of two thirtysomething Brooklynites trawls these waters in scrupulous detail and will help those who find themselves in the same leaky vessel to feel less abjectly alone.

"WORK NOT LOVE," is the motto on the Post-it note above the narrator's desk. A writer and teacher of writing – like Offill herself – she takes pleasure in a wry aphorism and plans never to marry. But then she meets a man from Ohio who is "famously kind", records soundscapes of the city, and puts his hands in all the many pockets of her winter coat.

We follow them through the proposal (in a museum), to the birth of a baby girl, the sleep deprivation, the bed-bug infestation, the getting (by him) of a proper job ("only vaguely soul-crushing"), and the sickening, awful moment when a liaison with another woman comes to light. Her emotions are all-encompassing: shock, rage, fear for the future, self-blame (had she, less generous by nature, somehow managed to "unkind and ungood" him?). Mostly she feels a simmering resentment, in which she lies in bed wondering if she can hold his hand while simultaneously giving him the finger.

Written in fragments that seem at first to be random thoughts plucked from Offill's mental wanderings, but gradually coalescing into a rich and satisfying whole, the narrative (and the narrator) are propped up by eclectic one-liners – from poets to various astronauts – and even a snippet of "advice for wives circa 1896" to avoid the "indiscriminate reading of novels" lest it breeds a contempt for domestic duties. Offill's novel is a life raft: read it for its unsentimental scoop on love, the breaking of something good, and the possibility of patching the cracks and pulling through.