Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

TitleStandard Deviation
AuthorKatherine Heiny
FinishedJune 26, 2021

When I studied English literature in college a half a century ago, the emphasis was on textual criticism: one is supposed to review or analyze a book on its own as a single piece of art without much regard for the author’s life or worldly events. But I’ve come to believe that is wrong-headed; after all, authors are told to “write what you know”; so how or why should we ignore all that when reading their novels? Who they are brings so much to what they create. Of course it becomes a slippery slope: I love Eric Clapton’s music but the man himself is a racist jerk; does that mean we just ignore one part of an artist? Somehow we need to see the influences of the artist’s life on their work but not always judge it. Well, now I’m starting to talk about cancel culture which I didn’t set out to do. Let’s turn to this book.

Like her novel Early Morning Riser, this book centers on a relationship between a man, his ex wife and his new wife (or girlfriend). This novel is told from the man’s perspective – Graham. In addition, each story has a vulnerable person. In Early Morning Riser, it is Duncan’s employee who is mentally challenged. In Standard Deviation, it is their son Matthew, who has Asperger’s syndrome. The title comes partially from an interview with a psychologist who tells Graham and Audra that some of Matthew’s social interactions are a standard deviation from normal.

Another reason for the title is the difference between Graham’s first wife, Elspeth. Audra is outgoing:

“Graham had noticed that hsy people loved Audra because she talked so much, and she frequently did both parts of the conversation.”

Page 67

 and “out there” on her conversation topics with near strangers, like talking about the relationship between massage and prostitution. 

“‘I think being a hooker would be the worst job in the world,’ Audra said, and her voice took on a slight relish. ‘Well, except maybe cat food salesperson. But honestly, imagine all the unattractive men you’d have to have sex with if you were a hooker. Just think about it.'”

Page 90

But her interlocutor, Bentrup, seems to have learned the key,

“‘I am, I am,’ Bentrup said. He seemed to have gotten the knack of conversing with Audra, the knack being that you had to pretend you were talking to someone in the time before society had formed and social boundaries had been invented.”

Page 90

Elspeth is at least a standard deviation different from Audra – much cooler. 

“She was the only woman Graham had ever known who didn’t kick off her high heels with a moan of pleasure as soon as she got home. (That had been another unrelaxing component of their married life, that she never lounged around in her bathrobe. Try lounging around in your bathrobe while your spouse clicks around the house in stiletto heels and vacuums the back of the television set. It gets to you.)”

Page 181

But in their difference there is similarity.

“It occurred to Graham that here, finally, was the similarity between the two women he’d chosen to marry: they were both totally unruffable, one of iciness, the other out of obliviousness.”

Page 95

Much of the novel involves their support of Matthew. They constantly have to run interference to ease their son’s way. Matthew develops an artistic ability in origami and finds a group where he fits in. But that group is also different; in many ways older versions of Matthew. Heiny finds the most comic ways to make this point. 

“Audra was right. They couldn’t let Matthew grow up to be like this guy. If he was going to spend his Wednesdays here, maybe they should insist Matthew take alligator wrestling on Thursdays, or else apprentice him into some seedy, messy occupation, like emergency plumbing.”

Page 103


“…Graham understood that it was almost too late. He had spent so much time wishing Matthew were 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. What Graham had to do was to love Matthew right now, right this instant – heart, get busy – before Matthew grew up and turned into someone else.”

Page 245

The common themes in the two novels begs us to ask the question about Katherine Heiny’s personal life. Although there must be something there, I resisted reading about her on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet. I guess that training from 50 years ago still has some grip on me afterall.

Heiny wonderfully explores these various relationships. Although the telling may be touching and – like life – poignant, and sometimes tragic, she leavens the story with hilarious writing. That paragraph where Bentrup has learned how to converse with Audra made me laugh out loud. And there were many other passages just as funny. If you are trying to decide between the two, I like Early Morning Riser a bit more – I gave it a full 5 stars and this one 4 stars

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