Katherine Heiny: Standard Deviation
Published By: Fourth Estate
Buy it: here
What the Blurb Says:
A divinely funny novel about the challenges of a good marriage, the delight and heartache of raising children, and the irresistible temptation to wonder about the path not taken.
Graham Cavanaugh’s second wife, Audra, is everything his first wife was not. She considers herself privileged to live in the age of the hair towel, talks non-stop through her epidural, labour and delivery, invites the doorman to move in and the eccentric members of their son’s Origami Club to Thanksgiving. She is charming and spontaneous and fun but life with her can be exhausting.
In the midst of the day-to-day difficulties and delights of marriage and raising a child with Asperger’s, his first wife, Elspeth, re-enters Graham’s life. Former spouses are hard to categorize – are they friends, enemies, old flames, or just people who know you really, really well? Graham starts to wonder: How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?
What I Say:
“And who’s to say that there isn’t a standard deviation from the standard deviation.”
Standard Deviation is one of the novels that you might have heard of, but like me have believed (wrongly) that it was something to do with the scary world of mathematics! I had heard a lot about Katherine’s book via Twitter and as so many people were falling in love with it, I was intrigued.
Something I have learned since starting this blog is that taking a chance on books can be a revelation. Sure, sometimes you realise that a book is just not working for you, and even though hordes of other people may love it, having the courage to say well I don’t can be hugely liberating. After all, who really cares if you don’t finish a book?
That is why my reading philosophy – life is too short to read books you don’t love has been a big turning point for me.
Let me say this now, Standard Deviation is 320 pages of pure unadulterated joy.
If you don’t fall in love with the character of Audra, then I really doubt whether we can truly be book friends!
Audra is Graham’s second wife, and they live with their son Matthew who has Aspergers. Audra is poles apart from his first wife, the ice maiden Elspeth, and Audra lives her life in a complete whirl, talking to anyone who will listen. She has no filter when it comes to saying the right thing and her verve for life and passion springs off the pages, and I must admit it is the only book I have read recently that has made me laugh out loud. There is a scene early on in the book at a wedding where Audra says something completely scandalous about the bride (I won’t spoil it by telling you – read the book), but it made me spit my coffee out laughing!
This I think sums up Audra in a nutshell;
“You had to pretend you were talking to someone in the time before society had formed and social boundaries had been invented.”
We start to see Graham’s struggle with his marriage, as he wonders whether he did the right thing by marrying Audra, or if should he have stayed with Elspeth instead. When Elspeth and Graham have to attend a lawyer’s meeting together, Audra suggests that they all go on a double date with Elspeth’s new partner Bentrup. As the four of them start to spend more time together, Katherine is wonderful at writing about the complexities of marriage and the way in which families are no longer constrained by the idea of a traditional nuclear family.
However, when Elspeth ends her relationship, Graham edges ever closer to her, comparing the calm and ordered environment she inhabits, to the passionate, chaotic home life he shares with Audra and an ever-changing rota of house guests. He is also blindsided by his suspicions that Audra is having an affair and he sets about trying to find out what Audra has been doing. Eventually, Audra confesses to an ‘almost affair’ with Jasper, and as Graham tries to process what has happened, Audra wants his forgiveness.
Nevertheless, Graham still sees Elspeth, and he admits that it is:
“…just like an affair, except without the sex or love or excitement, or other good parts”.
I felt that Graham’s relationship with Elspeth gave him the tranquility and escape he feels he needs, as if he needs confirmation that there is a world where he could have peace and calm. As the book progresses, I felt it was as if Graham has to get Elspeth out of his system to wake up and realise that this existence would also lack the excitement and joy that Audra brings him.
In fact, after realising that he cannot go through with spending the night with Elspeth, he returns home and sees Audra and realises:
“She was an absolute certainty in an uncertain world”.
When Elspeth dies, Graham is bequeathed one item from her apartment, and Audra, as many people would, uses this opportunity for a good snoop around. Graham reminisces about his relationship with Elspeth, but also finally gets a chance to put this behind him and be thankful for the marriage that he has.
Something else that really resonated with me was the challenges and compromises that Audra and her husband Graham face in raising Matthew. My eldest son has a range of special needs, and I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read a novel which pulls so sharply into focus the daily challenges you face as a parent of a child with special needs. The conversations that you have as a couple as you try to determine the right thing to do for your child, the ache you feel as you realise that your child is not doing what everyone else’s child is doing, and the realisation that the simplest tasks cannot be achieved without a mountain of planning and a whole lot of stress.
“Graham, like all parents of special needs children, had a range of stock phrases that he used when talking about Matthew to other people”.
I cheered when I read this sentence! Yes, this is someone who really understands what our life is like! Katherine writes with the knowledge and compassion of someone who knows what we go through, and for that, I would buy this book for every person who has asked us or made a stupid statement about the reality of our life with our eldest.
Matthew’s fascination with origami and his willingness to join a club with a group of people who accept him for who he is, is so well written. There is a brilliant scene where Audra has to cater for Matthew’s origami group, including one young man who will only eat white things, and when Audra realises she hasn’t got any white handled cutlery, she obviously panics. The young man then chastises Audra for thinking he is fussy!
After a number of setbacks, Matthew finally finds the confidence to go to a summer camp that caters for him, ditches the boy who has routinely been horrible to him, and finds a new friendship. I loved the way this whole plot line was central to Standard Deviation, but that it was not the focus. Matthew was not a character written to illicit our sympathy and pity, but rather as a way of cleverly depicting the day-to-day reality of living with a child with special needs. We as parents don’t want awards, a slap on the back, praise or recognition, we just want our children to be accepted and have the best life they can.
We leave Standard Deviation as Audra and Graham head out on a date, as if we have merely been eavesdropping on their daily life, as they move on with life, so must we. It is a wonderful, funny and clever book, filled with love, laughter and a big dose of real life.
I loved it.