One of my happiest finds of the last year was Katherine Heiny’s story collection, Single, Mellow, Carefree, which was so good I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of the author before. So when I was browsing books on audible, I was ecstatic when I saw the author had delivered a novel: Standard Deviation
It is so good! I actually can’t believe I had never heard of the book before. I know literary writers are always frightened of being shunted off into the women’s fiction ghetto (something that Heiny, with blurbs by Louise Erdrich and a publisher like Knopf, has obviously avoided), but this book has the things that make the best women’s fiction stand out: humor, zest for life, a focus on relationships, and larger-than-life characters.
I adore this book. I am actually restricting how often I listen to it (I only allow myself to listen whilst on walks) because I’ll be sad when it’s over.
The book’s protagonist is this dude in his mid-fifties, Graham, who’s been married to his second wife, forty year old Audra, for about twelve years. They’ve got a ten year old son who has pretty high-functioning autistism (kid loves origami and becomes increasingly involved with an origami club full of middle-aged men who also have autism). And Audra is really compelling. Okay, it’s possible I am only saying this because I am a man and because she verges on Manic Pixie Dream Girl status, but she also reminds me of plenty of people I know. She’s just this strange combination of self-absorbed and empathetic that, both in real life and on the page, is very compelling. For instance, she immediately ferrets out every detail about every person she meets. She collects gossip and extraneous information. Although she comes off as kind of ditzy, because she doesn’t know, like, history and science and stuff, she also has a remarkable amount of information about how systems work: how to get into college, how to get jobs, how to make friends. And she can read people with astounding accuracy.
She’s also got problems! She’s a pathological liar, and she gets inappropriately drunk. She also has a history of sexual misadventure, which includes hooking up with Graham while he was still married to his first wife, Elspeth.
Twelve years later, Graham and Audra are married, and he runs into Elspeth in the supermarket. They eat lunch together, and he begins to marvel at how different she is from Audra: she’s very cold and controlled and quiet. He wonders how one guy could’ve ever loved two such different women. And in some ways he wonders if maybe Elspeth isn’t a better fit for him.
Of course Audra gets involved. She befriends Elspeth, and for awhile the couple doubledates with Elspeth and her boyfriend. But then shit gets more complicated and well I don’t know. I’m not nearly finished with the book. But I highly recommend it! This book just makes you, I don’t know, it makes you feel hope for contemporary realist fiction. For the future of the novel of manners. Like, yeah, there is still life left in this old beast.