Greetings everyone and welcome to our July Book Club! I can’t believe it’s July, we’re part way through summer already. Where is 2018 going?
So up on the block this time around we have Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, which stands out as one of the funniest books I’ve read in the last year, and one that manages to be fantastically entertaining despite the fact there isn’t a huge amount of action.
At its heart Standard Deviation is very much about main characters Graham and Audra’s marriage. This is really the sun around which the whole novel rotates, so let’s start there and work our way outward. but interestingly isn’t a story about a marriage in crisis.
Novels that focus on relationships tend to capture a big event or take a snapshot of a significant moment in time. That’s why romance novels often cover the courtship or why some of the more prominent novels focused on the intricacies of a relationship centre on a marriage in crisis; both events have the capacity to be filled with tension and drama.
In every novel, there’s a catalyst that makes the story worth telling – in stories fixated on relationships a couple need to meet and fall in love, or a relationship needs to crumble so that we have something to read about.
Movies and books often ignore the middle bits of long relationships because they don’t necessarily make for entertaining reading. So in this sense, Standard Deviation is already offering a unique perspective.
Graham and Audra are more than a decade into their marriage and are neither particularly happy or unhappy. They’re just getting on with the business of living, and the narrative is zoomed all the way in on the miniature daily dramas that make up a life.
On the surface, these two characters couldn’t be more opposite, and their differences are all the more glaringly obvious when Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, comes into the picture. (We’ll come back to her in a minute.)
So Audra and Graham are living in Manhattan and raising their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Aspergers. How Graham and Audra think about Matthew is where we really come to understand their differences in personality. Audra is determined to clear a path for Matthew to make his way into the world, while Graham mourns the fact that Matthew will never get to be ‘normal’.
Normal is an interesting idea in and of itself. Is being normal good or bad? At times all you want is to be normal, to fit the mould, to be like everyone else. Other times, being normal is the worst thing in the world, you want to be seen as an individual, not like everybody else. This question of normal says a lot about Graham and Audra’s worldview. When Audra thinks she might be pregnant, Graham worries their child might not be normal. Audra worries that they will be.
In the year or so we follow the family, there’s a few different things that could have easily turned into major issues – Audra’s emotional affair with the mysterious Jasper, as well as Graham’s growing closeness to his ex-wife Elspeth. Both have the opportunity to stray from the marriage, and both turn back at the last second. They weather the storm and move on.
I loved both these characters – by the end they felt like members of my own family – and something I particularly admired about the writing was how authentic they both felt.
They were likeable but distinctly imperfect. They said the wrong things and made mistakes. Audra could be tactless, Graham could be cold, and though they were each walking contradictions you ultimately came to like and accept them for who they were.
Their son Matthew was equally wonderful, and the scenes that revolve around him – his origami club, their trip to the origami convention, his visit to camp, the fishing expedition – were often charming, life-affirming and bittersweet.
My single favourite moment in the novel is when Matthew arrives home from camp, breathlessly announcing: “Camp–was–fantastic!”
I could vividly imagine Matthew bursting into the apartment and loved how beautifully the author captured this moment. Before Matthew arrives home Graham is restless, irritable. But that’s completely forgotten the second Matthew runs in, happy and disheveled – Graham’s joy is an extension of Matthew’s joy. And isn’t that always the way with the people we love? Their highs and lows become our own by association.
The final piece of the puzzle is Elspeth, Graham’s ex-wife. I have mixed feelings about her and the role she played in the story. She was the source of several plot twists – when she enters into their lives, when she invites Graham to have an affair, when she suddenly dies – but we’re still very disconnected from her.
Graham and Audra manage to spend more time with Elspeth and Bentrup than I do with several of my good friends, but we’re never privy to these interactions. We see snippets of conversation but the rest is told to us in summary.
Elspeth is actually very vividly rendered, we do get a sense of who she is – for example, when she abandons her cart in the grocery store because she doesn’t want to deal with running into Audra and Graham. That small interaction spoke volumes.
What bothered me about her is how little lasting impact she left on Graham and Audra. Graham is deeply shocked when she dies, but to call either him or Audra heartbroken would be a huge exaggeration. When they go into her apartment so Graham can choose one of her possessions, he’s more fixated on keeping score, spooling back through old arguments, than he is grieving her loss (though you could make the argument those two things are one in the same). And Audra seems not to care at all – she’s really just there to snoop around.
So if I was going to make one criticism of the story that would be it. Why after the story has spent so much time invested in Elspeth does no one seem to care when she’s died? She is a huge source of plot in the novel, then exits with a whimper rather than a bang.
There are dozens of small moments that pack huge emotional punch in this book. That’s what made it so fun to read; you feel the full force of Audra’s personality and all the people she brings into her orbit.
There is a very clear editorial decision being made here; there’s plenty of potential tension but the edges are always dulled, quickly passed over to make room for the novel’s true strength, which is observing family life and pulling at the things that are universal. The characters and their situation are unique, but also deeply relatable – we recognise the emotions they encounter, even if the experience itself is very different to our own situation.
There’s so many other things I could touch on – Graham’s assistant, the origami club (and the symbolic meaning of origami in general) – but it’s time for me to hand it over to you. What did you think of Standard Deviation? What bits stood out for you?