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Matching Pink Turtleneck

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Standard Deviation
By Katherine Heiny
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

We all know a mismatched couple – two people whose personalities seem so at odds that you struggle to imagine their day-to-day interactions. In Katherine Heiny’s debut novel, Standard Deviation, we follow a comically lopsided couple from the perspective of Graham, a subdued, middle-aged businessman whose second wife, Audra, talks the ear off everyone she meets. Their ten-year-old son, Matthew, is an antisocial origami fanatic with Asperger’s. Completing this oddball cast of characters is Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, a prim lawyer who reemerges in his life after ten years of separation. Heiny’s debut short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, marked her as a witty, snarky voice in the vein of Lorrie Moore and Maria Semple. But with Standard Deviation, she achieves something subtler, balancing cynicism and warmth. Through Graham’s running commentary on his relationships, Heiny explores how familiarity inspires a tangled web of respect, condescension, and love.

As the star of Graham’s life, Audra is the star of the book. According to Graham, the trick to talking to Audra is “to pretend you were talking to someone in the time before society had formed and social boundaries had been invented.” She encourages nervous young cashiers as she checks out of the supermarket, learns strangers’ life stories at bus stops, and opens her home to all kinds of houseguests. Heiny brilliantly filters Audra’s speech patterns through Graham’s perspective, simultaneously giving the reader a vivid sense of both characters, as well as an inkling of how Audra’s storytelling style might have influenced Graham’s thought patterns over the years. Take when Graham considers their most recent houseguest:

The reason (if you could call it that) Bitsy was living in their den was because about six months ago, Audra, who was a freelance graphic designer, went to deliver a mock-up of a menu to a restaurant client in midtown and when she came out of the restaurant’s office, she happened to see Bitsy’s husband – she recognized him from the time Bitsy hosted book club – having lunch with a twenty-something girl in a miniskirt. (Audra had described the girl to Graham at length and was apparently upset because the girl was wearing a pair of knee-high Frye leather boots that Audra had tried on once and had been unable to get zipped over her calves.) Graham had told her that there might be an innocent reason for Bitsy’s husband to be having lunch with a girl in a miniskirt, but Audra’d just given him a withering look, and then about a month ago, Bitsy’s husband had moved to Ithaca on a creative sabbatical. (“Creative sabbatical?” Audra’d said to Graham. “He’s a bank manager! I never heard of anything so suspicious in my whole entire life.”) Audra had felt so bad – so responsible in some weird way, she said – that she’d offered to let Bitsy move in even though Bitsy and her husband owned a nice Brownstone in Brooklyn. Bitsy didn’t like to live alone.

Graham finds some of Audra’s habits maddening, like her need to pry into other people’s personal lives, and the way she often talks about him like he’s not in the same room (“It was sort of like being a supporting character in a book someone else was writing”). He sometimes thinks she’s nuts, like when she tells him she doesn’t think she’s pregnant because she hasn’t had her “sexy dream about Anthony Hopkins” yet. He laments that she always overpacks on flights, bringing stuffed plastic bags that break in the middle of the airport. And although he regularly notices her beauty, he also focuses on her wealth of unattractive moments, like when she moves from the backseat to the front seat of the car “legs first, back arching, struggling and kicking. It was like a giraffe was being born next to him.”

But Graham also marvels at Audra – at the way she makes even shy people feel comfortable in a conversation, at her unbelievable memory (which he compares to an iCloud “years and years before Apple” thought to invent it), at her compassion (however inconvenient it might be at times), and at her connection to Matthew. He knows that one word of pride from Audra makes Matthew “radiant,” and that “only Audra could bring that out.” By mixing the ludicrous with the tender, Heiny ensures that Graham’s observations never veer into barbed, bitter territory. And she recognizes that readers might be tempted to mistake his grumbling for genuine dissatisfaction. After another zany Audra moment, Elspeth asks Graham, “Is your life always like this?” Even though he responds with a simple “yes,” he reflects after the exchange:

But the truth was more complicated than that. Because although Audra did make preposterous statements at least twice a week (more frequently than that if she had PMS), the truth was that Graham liked it. Or at least, he liked it and disliked it in equal measure. But he didn’t tell Elspeth any of that. He let her think that life with Audra was maddening, and nothing more.

Graham’s relationship with Matthew is equally complex. As a parent of a child with special needs, his life feels like a never-ending navigation of two truths: He loves Matthew just the way he is, and life would be much easier for all of them if Matthew were different. An introverted person himself, Graham can’t stop worrying about Matthew’s social skills, producing moments of poignant comedy:

Normally, Graham and Audra (especially Audra) had to act as a sort of lubricant for any social interaction Matthew had. And not just a mild lubricant, like Vaseline or butter – we’re not talking about anything as minor as a stuck zipper here – but heavy, industrial lubricant, like motor oil or axle grease. Oh, the playdates and lunches Graham had sat through with Matthew and another child, while Audra said things like, “Matthew loves the Wiggles! Don’t you, Matthew?”
“He especially likes the red one. Murray, I think. Who’s your favorite, Jimmy?” Or Tommy. Or Zachary. Or Ross.
“I like the yellow one.”
“Matthew likes him, too! Right, Matthew?”
“Not really.”
“Well, he sort of likes him. I mean, he doesn’t dislike him.”
And on and on. Until you understood – truly understood, on an emotional level – why simultaneous interpreters have the highest suicide rate of any profession.

When Matthew decides to join a neighborhood origami club, Graham and Audra struggle to stay positive. On the one hand, they revel in the new feeling that Matthew will “dazzle” a group of people, and that he’ll finally have some friends. One the other hand, they don’t love that those friends are three finicky, fidgety, middle-aged men who all have special needs of their own (one, for example, refuses to eat any food that isn’t white). Graham and Audra wonder with horror if they’re a sign of what Matthew will become.

This fear crystalizes as they drive Matthew and the club leader, Clayton, to an origami convention: “‘This is my favorite weekend of the whole year,’ Clayton said – which was so depressing that Graham thought he might involuntarily plunge the car into the East River.” Matthew thrives at the convention, a place where everybody shares his obsession with sharp creases. Graham’s pain comes from the knowledge that life creates its own folds and complications, and that it’s a mistake to look for any clear, crisp edges.

When focusing on Graham’s relationships with Audra and Matthew, Heiny creates a touching portrait of a colorful family. Where things unravel a bit is with the portrayal of Elspeth, Graham’s first wife. She’s described as “tall, slim, and regal,” as well as “cold, hard, [and] perfectionist.” When they become reacquainted ten years after their divorce, Graham imagines her on the other end of the phone:

Elspeth always wore her hair pulled back in a French twist. She answered the phone without any nonsense. He could visualize the rest of her, too: her perfect posture, the silk blouses she favored, the narrowness of her shoulders, the way she always sat with her feet tucked slightly under her chair because she believed that crossing one’s legs caused varicose veins.

He adds that she speaks “crisply” and “didn’t like to be interrupted” (who exactly enjoys being interrupted?). Her appearance is always “absolutely immaculate,” featuring outfits like “a pale pink trench coat over a matching pink turtleneck and white wool pants.” In her new apartment, everything is “as bright and hard and shiny as the sidewalk after an ice storm. No wonder Elspeth wanted to live there. She had an intense dislike of carpeting – or anything soft, really.”

If the picture weren’t clear enough, Graham offers the reader a helpful metaphor:

During [Elspeth’s conversation with Audra], Graham was very distracted by the blouse Elspeth was wearing. It was black silk and had a picture of a white bow on it, but not an actual bow. Graham liked analogies and he couldn’t help thinking that there was some way in which the blouse suited Elspeth perfectly. It was not that she was a two-dimensional person, he knew her far too well to ever think that. It was more the self-contained, insoluble, impenetrable nature of it.”

But in fact, no matter the plot point, Elspeth never becomes three-dimensional. This could be interpreted as a commentary on how strained relationships make us blind to the people we once felt closest to. Maybe Graham can’t push past the negative memories of his cold marriage and guilt-ridden divorce, to the point where he can no longer see his ex-wife as a person who exists outside his feelings about her.

However, in a character-based novel with no discernable plot, Elspeth’s depiction appears more lazy than intentional. One of Heiny’s gifts is taking characters to the edge of caricature, and then reeling them back to believable humans. Elspeth never gets reeled back. She remains an uninspired foil for the bright, loud, vivacious Audra. Considering Elspeth alongside the flatness of the other supporting characters (most notably Graham’s ditzy young secretary, Olivia), the reader is presented with a problem: If this is meant to be a two-dimensional romp, instead of a series of nuanced character studies, why is there no plot?

Stereotypical plot points present themselves (potential affairs, a possible pregnancy, trouble for Matthew at school), but they inevitably fizzle out without satisfying developments or conclusions. Which is true to how life often feels – it just doesn’t fit with the carefully curated kookiness of this novel. In fact, reading the first chapter alone provides almost all the revelations you can expect from Standard Deviation, with the kind of closing lines that ring with finality:

[Graham] did not feel, at that moment, standing there in the kitchen, that he and Audra were living in parallel universes. Or, if they were, she was at the very nearest edge of her universe, and he was at the very nearest edge of his, and they had found a thin spot in the fabric of their worlds, a meeting place, and a way to stay there, touching, floating, together.

Still, if this is a meandering, extended short story, it’s an extremely entertaining one. And although it doesn’t move far beyond the ideas in its opening, those ideas are plenty to think about: how the wacky details about people are the most infuriating and most magical things about them; how marriage inspires equally loving forms of appreciation and irritation; and how very thin the line is between despair and hilarity.

Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer living in Russia.