Katherine Heiny’s First Novel, “Standard Deviation,” Is Way Above Average

Sarah Harrison Smith on May 25, 2017

Standard-DeviationI remember the feeling I had when I first read Katherine Heiny’s story “How to Give the Wrong Impression” in the New Yorker magazine in 1992. It’s a story about grad-student roommates who fall in love while dating the wrong people.  What was so startling about it was that it felt authentically young: Heiny seemed to be holding up a mirror to the not-quite-settled lives of 20-somethings and reflecting them back with sympathy and humor.

The details were on point: To give you one small example among many, this was probably the first (and, to date, last) story I’ve read in The New Yorker documenting the urge that overtakes otherwise lazy young women to scrub the shower late at night. Maybe it’s a nesting impulse. At that time, I associated New Yorker stories with affluent WASPs; Heiny’s characters were hard up and had names like “Boris” and “Dahlia Kosinski.” They cleaned the shower at one in the morning; they acted foolishly; it was a revelation.

That story was republished, with ten others, in Heiny’s 2015 collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. Eleven stories in twice as many years is not a lot, but as Heiny recently said in an essay published in Lit Hub, she was otherwise employed, writing young adult novels under another author’s name—an experience she says taught her how to structure her writing—and raising “two high-maintenance children who didn’t sleep much.”

Readers hungry for more Heiny can now rejoice: Knopf has just published her first adult novel, Standard Deviation, and it is funny, delightful, and poignant beyond any reasonable expectations. Heiny has grown up, and her characters have, too, though they are still acting foolishly and occasionally dating the wrong people.

At a time when publishers seem to be buying novels that cast light on political subjects like the refugee crisis, Standard Deviation claims more familiar territory: middle-class marriage and parenthood. But Heiny’s handling of these perennial themes is in no way ordinary because of the wacky genius of her voice.

The married couple in Standard Deviation are Graham, a restrained and private man (if you are immediately imagining someone British, you’re correct) and his second wife, Audra, who is utterly unrestrained in every way, especially in conversation with everyone, including virtual strangers. The knack of talking to her, Graham observes, is “that you had to pretend you were talking to someone in the time before society had formed and social boundaries had been invented.”

Audra is hilarious and, shall we say, “earthy”—so frank that I actually can’t quote much of what she says for fear of offending you. But she is also absolutely good-hearted and warm, two qualities Graham desperately requires in parenting Matthew, their origami-obsessed son, who is somewhere on the autism spectrum. The novel’s title comes from the world-changing conversation Graham and Audra have with the doctor who first diagnoses Matthew, saying that his scores on a number of tests rank far above the “standard deviation” for typical children.

“Standard deviation! Graham was appalled. Was that what they were discussing here—statistics? And who’s to say that there isn’t a standard deviation from that standard deviation? Who was this doctor to say that because of standard deviation, Matthew stood firmly on the stark cracked-earth desert of Asperger’s, that he would never feel the long cool green shade of normal?”

Different from Heiny’s stories, which were mostly told from the perspective of women, in this novel the author takes Graham’s male view, and the result is an extraordinary blossoming of the range of Heiny’s compassion. In her stories, Audra would have been the gently flawed protagonist through whose eyes the story unfolded. Here, Heiny satirizes her female protagonist (gently, lovingly) and shows, through Graham, exactly the cost of living with someone as unrestrained, for good and ill, as she is.

Not every book has to be big-picture political to have import, or impact. Standard Deviation is the novel I’m recommending to everyone who asks, urging that they read it to cheer themselves up, laugh out loud, and ponder the complications and charm of everyday life. I can’t think of better company, on the page, than Heiny, and it’s such a pleasure to see a beloved short-form acquaintance grow into a wonderful full-length friend.


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