Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

TitleEarly Morning Riser
AuthorKatherine Heiny
FinishedJune 6, 2021

The purpose of art is to encapsulate a slice of life in writing, painting, sculpture, or other medium and present it in a way that shows the human condition. Katherine Heiny has written a  humorous and poignant novel that  captures 17 years of Jane’s life between 2002 and 2019. We can see ourselves in Jane as she works through an ordinary life filled with the mundane, the tragic, and the sublime. 

In 2002 Jane moves to the small Boyne City, Michigan where she will teach second grade. Within a month she has met and fallen in love with Duncan.  Duncan is a charmer and it turns out that he has been in serious or overnight relationships with most, if not all, of the eligible women in the small town. Everywhere she goes Jane wonders if this woman, or that woman, has been with Duncan. To her consternation, Duncan has a workable relationship with Aggie, his former wife and Jane must find her place in that world.Jane wants more than Duncan can provide so she breaks up with him when he refuses to commit to marriage. 

Each chapter is titled for the year the events happened. The first chapter, like many of the others, step through the year while others step through a single day in that year. Two of those chapters are masterpieces. The 2005 chapter covers the building stress of the day before her wedding. She is wearing her too-tight wedding shoes to try to break them in, but they just give her blisters. It’s a hot day: “the sun beat down on their shoulders like the blows of soft, hot hammers.” [p 62] There are too many details to work out and the venue just doesn’t seem to be as nice as she remembers. On top of that, her mother is a handful; her fiancés mother is with them and is not from the same planet as Jane’s mom:

“Jane knew with certainty that Edith-Louise ws thinking ahead, that she was looking down a long dim corridor at all the future meals and holidays that might include Jane’s mother and feeling a black,despairing sort of dread.”

Page 54

The tension continues to build until Jane thinks she can have a moment to herself with a glass of wine at the end of the day. And then:

“She knew those sirens were racing toward her mother, but something else was racing toward Jane. Something shadowy, and bullet-shaped, and almost sentient was hurtling through the night. It was looking for her, and she knew that she must let it find her. She must take ownership of it. She must close her fingers over it and never let it go. This terrible thing. It belonged to her now.”

Page 82

That day changes the course of Jane’s life as well as most of the other characters. 

The same building tension occurs in 2016 when Duncan has to go out of town overnight with Aggie. Knowing Duncan, Jane’s worries escalate through the day. At first:

“In all the times Jane had been forced to spend with Aggie – years and years of meals and movies and house-hunting and cocktails and picnics and random meetings – Jane had never seen Duncan touch her. He’d never kissed her cheek or shaken her hand or helped her with her coat, and now here he was touching her bare arm! Jane felt an actual pain in her chest, as though a drop of hot oil from a frying pan had landed there sizzling.”

Page 224

Then it goes from bad to worse. “Everything was against Jane the next day. Everything.” [p 235]

Her youngest, very stubborn, daughter has a “temper tantrum so severe that it might have qualified as a psychotic break.” [p 258] At then end of her wits, Jane

“reached for patience the way she might reach an arm behind the sofa to retrieve a dropped television remote. She groped for a moment, felt patience fumble from her fingertips, and then got a grip on it and pulled it out.”

Page 259

I love this image! Then tension builds for a few more pages, then resolves in a few paragraphs. It is delicious to feel this ratcheting tension for all but the final couple of pages. Eventually, Jane learns to recognize the moments of love and beauty and crop up from time to time in one’s life.

There is so much more to this book; other pivotal characters that fill Jane’s life. And it isn’t at all as dreary as the quotes suggest. There are laugh-out-loud moments as well. When trying to give her youngest daughter a bath: 

“She ran water in the tub, and then prepared for battle with Patrice, who did not care for bath time. Every night she fought Jane fiercely, silently, in the manner of someone who knows her life is on the line and that the time for screaming has passed.”

Page 232

And talking about parent-teacher conferences:

“(Parents got less reliable as the school year went along; by May, they scattered like cockroaches in the light whenever help was needed.)”

Page 238

One of my soft spots is a nice simile and this book is full of them. 

“…they went out into a summer night as soft and deep as raven feathers.”

“If neither outfit was available, [Patrice] cried until mucus covered her upper lip like a banana slug.”

“Sometime’s Patrice’s tantrums could be averted, like a toppling wineglass grabbed in the nick of time. Her bad mood sloshed around but didn’t spill out.”

Pages 108, 220, 264

The NY Times and Washington  Post call it “hilarious”. All I can do is tell you it’s a beautiful novel and  recommend you read it.

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