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May 27, 2021

My Spring Obsession: Katherine Heiny

It started in February when I signed up for an online event celebrating Laurie Colwin, whose book Happy All The Time was appearing in a new edition with a foreword by Katherine Heiny. Heiny was also co-hosting the event, which was a pleasure to “attend” and there was a reference to her work being more than a little Colwin-esque. So I ordered her first novel Standard Deviation from the library. And I loved it. I loved it SO MUCH. I loved it in a where-have-you-been-all-my-life, I-ought-to-recommend-this-book-to-everybody-I-know kind of sense. It was the book that my husband demanded he would get to read right after I was finished with it, because he wanted to know what all the laughing was about, and then I got to listen to him laughing about it too.

Standard Deviation, like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, like everything by Colwin, is a comic novel that break all the rules of novel-writing and is definitely the kind of book in which nothing much happens and yet everything does. Stories that fixate on minutiae and room decor and thread counts, and everybody is more than a little bit neurotic. Standard Deviation is a novel narrated by Graham, who is married to Audra, his second wife, who never stops talking and is on intimate terms with everybody they encounter. They have a son with Aspergers whose struggles are depicted poignantly but also hilariously—and what a balance is that. This is the most true-to-love depiction of the heartaches of parental love that I’ve ever encountered in a book, and it’s just the most remarkable combination of thoroughly absurd and utterly mundane. I could have read this book forever, Graham as a straight man casting Audra in the most compelling light, though he’s having his own complicated experience as he has a run-in with his first wife, Elspeth, on whom who cheated with Audra, and Elspeth is Audra’s polar opposite in every single way, and because Audra is Audra, she insists that they all get together, and (shockingly) it all doesn’t run so smoothly. Add to the mix their son Matthew’s origami club and its ensuing drama, and you’ve got a family comedy like nothing else you’ve read before…except maybe in Laurie Colwin.

I think maybe if I hadn’t had my mind blown by Standard Deviation, I would have been more ecstatic about her just-released novel Early Morning Riser, which has the same tone as the first novel but is perhaps lacking its tartness. The secondary characters aren’t as realized in this novel, and we encounter them at the beginning of their connection instead of in the midst of a long history which renders the story a little more shallow. Taking place over two decades too instead of the very focused narrative of Standard Deviation, it’s just too sprawling and meandering in terms of plot. But I still really enjoyed it, and bought a copy for my daughter’s Grade 2 teacher because Jane, the main character in the book, is a Grade 2 teacher, who rolls into town and finds love with Duncan, who’s a great guy but, unfortunately (and maybe consequently) has been intimately involved with every woman they encounter in their life together, which makes things a bit awkward for Jane, plus he has his own first wife, and other connections make their life together unnecessarily complicated and Jane is just not sure how she feels about having her domestic life be so crowded…

It was not a great novel by traditional standards, but it was a good novel, and that it was distinctly a Katherine Heiny novel—in terms of humour, character, description—made it a novel that’s thoroughly worth reading. Every since I read her books, my own fiction has included characters who are just a little less ordinary, prone to rashes and strange outbursts. Somebody will be walking into a room, and why not decide that they’re carrying a giant sombrero, you know? It’s a wonderful, inspiring kind of license, to write characters who are outside the ordinary, and I’m really enjoying playing with that.

And I’m also looking forward to finally reading her very first book, the short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow, whose title story I’m most intrigued by and which I never would have picked up every because these are three adjectives that describe somebody so different from me that I feel like store alarms might go off if I tried to buy it. But I am going to buy it now, because I’m most certain that Katherine Heiny’s writing is meant for me.

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