Book Review Time: Standard Deviation

On rare occasions, I experience what I call “novel dilemma.” This happens when I reach the end of a book, and I have no idea how I feel about it. Did I like it? Did I hate it? There’s no clear verdict. Sometimes novel dilemmas can arise from mediocre stories with compelling characters, or stellar plots that epically crash towards the end. As a reader, you just don’t know what to make of these experiences. In the case of Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, incredible writing, immersed in humor and heart, feels weighed down by the often obnoxious behaviors of its characters.

matcha latte with oat milk, three pumps of vanilla, and a foamy heart on top.

The story is told from the perspective of Graham Cavanaugh, a married father living in New York City. It is quickly established that Graham’s current marriage is not his first. In fact, Graham left his first wife, Elspeth (interesting name) for his current wife, Audra (interesting personality). The story begins with Graham and Audra several years into their family life together, which includes their 10 year old son, Matthew. They seem to have their routine down pat. When Graham isn’t at work as a venture capitalist, he’s planning and preparing meals for the family, helping with homework, or attending to some other parental duty. Audra, a freelance graphic designer, appears to work sparingly but spends much of her time involved in their son’s school and extracurricular activities. Graham and Audra enjoy nights on their own as well, dinner dates and meet-ups with close friends. From the outside, everything seems on the up and up. But there’s a hitch. It’s Audra’s forceful personality. She socializes on a scale unimaginable to the average human being. Audra can literally talk to anyone about anything, eliciting deeply confidential intel from mere acquaintances. Audra’s mind contains a vast catalog of intelligence and secrets garnered over time, and she’s not above dropping a bit of gossip at the most awkward of moments. And it’s this aspect of Audra’s personality that I found infuriating at times. Graham seems to as well. And things really kick up a notch when Audra decides to befriend Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. She is the exact opposite of Audra. Reserved and tightly-wound, Elspeth would happily suffer in silence if it meant keeping every strand of her perfectly coiffed hair in place. Graham is befuddled by Audra’s sudden interest in his ex-wife, but eventually he concedes to her plan. As Graham starts to form a new type of relationship with Elspeth, he finds himself questioning past decisions made, and actions taken. He also begins to see strains in his current marriage to Audra. There’s a rocky road ahead.

Standard Deviation has so much going for it; a unique premise, great writing, laugh out loud moments. But what I kept coming up against were characters that I didn’t really like. The steady stream of dinner and house guests, some of whom were extremely annoying. The eccentric and aversion-prone members of Matthew’s origami club. And of course, that Rottweiler kid, (Psst, you’ll understand all of these references if you read the book.) But in the end, the ones who bothered me the most were Audra and Graham. Audra basks in her irrepressibility, recounting stories of past affairs and seedy encounters with relish. She’s inappropriate and has absolutely no filter. But her presence is such that no one ever checks her on these lapses in social etiquette. Graham, on the other hand, is pent up. In his attempts to offset the whirlwind that is Audra, he becomes an inactive bystander, a man quick to deliver knowing looks and uncomfortable coughs, but terrified of confrontation. Often it feels like Graham is observing his life from the outside. Not an enviable position to be in. 

Katherine Heiny tries to balance these character traits out with truly heartfelt moments. There is no denying Graham and Audra’s love for their son, Matthew. Throughout the novel their dedication as parents to a special-needs child is evident. I applaud Heiny for her sincere and moving depiction of a family that has to operate a little differently than most.

Standard Deviation is a story of how people navigate through the ups and downs of life, and maintain a sense of humor. It’s a story of how we manage and keep moving forward, even through the most trying of circumstances. Some take refuge in guarded fortresses. Others keep their doors open, come what may. There are even a select few who lose themselves within the folds of a paper crane. Yes, the characters are flawed. But, at the end of the day, no one’s perfect. Certainly not Graham and Audra. They’re just human, like the rest of us. And their story proves that love can be mind-numbingly complicated and supremely simple, all at the same time.

Yea or Nay on this title? The final verdict…

It’s a yea for me. A soft yea.


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