Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Katherine Heiny blew me away with her short-story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, and it became my go-to Christmas present in 2015. When I heard her novel was forthcoming, I could only hope that the strong characterisation and subtle wit of her stories would transfer into the longer format. I had no reason to fear – Standard Deviation is a triumph of storytelling, from a writer with an authentic voice and much to say.
The novel is told from the perspective of Graham, who has been married to Audra for 12 years. Approaching 60, this is his second marriage, and he and Audra have an Asperger’s ten-year old, Matthew. Graham is both an introvert and an over-thinker (also slightly world-weary, if not clinically depressed), so his perspective on marriage and parenting is wry and considered. Audra, by comparison, is extroverted, energetic, highly dramatic and verges on being a pathological liar. Graham often feels exhausted just by being around her. When Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, comes back into their life by chance, Graham cannot imagine how he married such different women. Audra welcomes Elspeth into their life and Graham is provoked into not quite a mid-life crisis, so much as an existential crisis. What (and whom) does he want?
A strength of Standard Deviation is that Matthew’s Asperger’s diagnosis is not set up as the problem to be ‘solved’, rather it is just one aspect that impacts Graham and Audra’s day-to-day life. Matthew is a young boy with quirks, an origami obsession, and great love for his parents. They try their best to nurse him through new experiences (friendship dynamics, school camp) and this is rendered beautifully. This is a brilliant, laugh-out-loud novel; an exploration of the intimate relationships that frustrate and test us, but ultimately sustain us. A good choice for book groups, also for fans of Jonathan Franzen and Meg Wolitzer.
Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.