Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: May 23rd 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
I don’t know any other way to begin this review than to say I’m pretty sure Katherine Heiny and I would be besties if we met. Not just because of the first name thing, but because cocktails and snarky conversation on the foibles of the human condition would abound if we ever got together. Which is such a lie because I am always tongue-tied in front of authors I admire, but still it’s my story and I’m sticking with it. My belief in our soon-to-be lifelong friendship came after reading her latest novel, Standard Deviation, a wry reflection on life and marriage through the eyes of one husband.
The basic facts of Standard Deviation are: Graham is in his mid-fifties, works for a venture capital firm and has been married to the forty-one-year-old Audra, his second wife, for twelve years. They have a ten-year-old son, Matthew, who is on the Asperger’s spectrum. Their life is filled with a lot of social interaction largely because Audra is one of those vivacious women who naturally attracts and keeps people in her orbit. That some of these people end up living in their den for months when problems arise in their lives is problematic for Graham, whose view of the sociality of life is much different than that of his wife. For example, their doorman, Julio, has been with them for several weeks and while he is a good houseguest it his mother Graham admires because
Julio’s mother sent them supper and they didn’t even have to meet her, let alone endure an evening of small talk? Now there was a relationship Graham could get behind.
He is of the variety of human who wonders why there isn’t some kind of babysitting service for houseguests. Or a place where you could drop them off for several hours just so you could have some quiet time. This, to me, sounds perfectly reasonable. As it would to any introvert, but it puts Graham in direct opposition to Audra with her no-filter, all-inclusive personality. She believes everyone should be able to be friends which is why, in addition to hard luck houseguests Graham finds himself socializing with his ex, Elspeth. Awkward, yes, but even as he chafes he knows his wife is the only thing standing between him and an ice floe in the middle of the Artic Ocean (might sound peaceful but would not really be a great idea).
Through Graham, Heiny dispels with not only the perfect marriage myth, but also that of parent as saint, which is a deep sigh of relief for anyone who finds both standards unrealistic and dangerous. Instead, Graham shares the aggravation of having a child with whom every single interaction is a negotiation, where the concept of simple doesn’t exist. That his frustration is mixed with the pangs of knowing his son’s only friends are a group of old, OCD, origami enthusiasts is one of the many ways that Heiny excels at portraying real life.
He had spent so much time wishing Matthew was different, wondering how to make Matthew different, when it was actually the process of living that did it. Life forced you to cope. Life wore down all your sharp corners with its tedious grinding on, the grinding that seemed to take forever but was actually as quick as a brushfire.
Unlike the boisterous feel of Monday’s book (The Windfall), Heiny works with subtlety. Much of what Graham thinks about his life is an internal dialogue. A hilarious and snarky dialogue, but hidden nonetheless. He’s reached the point in life where much of the action is over and reflection is what’s left. There is no build-up of tension, no dramatic story arc or grand gesture, only the mundanity of everyday life. His acerbic impressions, in concert with his flaws, make him wonderfully recognizable to anyone who lives in that mental space. By filling Standard Deviation with wit and compassion Heiny’s agile mind gives the solitude seekers of the real world the best gift ever—feeling we are not alone without having to have anyone around.
…the smell of fresh bread was everything you wanted love to be, but so often isn’t: hot, sweet, comforting, full of promise, and so heartwarming it made you want to do nice things for other people.