Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

published 2017

Standard Deviation 1

Here they were grocery shopping in Fairway on a Saturday morning, a normal married thing to do together—although, Graham could not help noticing, they were not doing it together. His wife, Audra, spent almost the whole time talking to people she knew—it was like accompanying a visiting dignitary of some sort, or maybe a presidential hopeful—while he did the normal shopping.

First, in the produce section, they saw some woman with a baby in a stroller and Audra said, “Oh, hi! How are you? Are you going to that thing on Tuesday?” and the woman said, “I don’t know, because there’s that other meeting,” and Audra said, “I thought that got canceled,” and the woman said, “No, it’s still on,” and Audra said, “I wish they wouldn’t double-book this stuff,” and the woman said, “I know,” and Audra said, “Well, if we don’t go, will everyone say bad things about us?” and the woman said, “Probably,” and it wasn’t that Graham wasn’t paying attention, it wasn’t that he missed the specifics—it was that there were no specifics, that was the way they actually talked….

Standard Deviation 2

[Audra picks a specific checkout line and explains why]

“I was here a couple of weeks ago and Jordan was ringing up this man’s produce and the man had bought some pears but Jordan accidentally hit the wrong button and rang them up as these superexpensive Asian pears and the man got very huffy… So, anyway, now I always make sure to go through his checkout line and tell him what a good job he’s doing.”

Perhaps this was the fundamental difference between them. Audra was worried about Jordan’s self-esteem and Graham was wondering if Fairway still had the special Asian pears. If so, should he go get some so they could have Korean short ribs with pear marinade for dinner?

commentary: I can’t begin to describe how much I loved this book. I had to stop reading it in public places, or even with anyone else in the room ultimately, because it made me laugh so much. The only book this year that has even come close to it in those terms is Oh my God, What a Complete Aisling by Emer McLysaght & Sarah Breenon the blog here. Both are books that I know I will give as gifts to others, and frequently re-read.

Standard Deviation 3

Graham and Audra are a well-off couple in Manhattan, with a son, Matthew who is special needs. He may be autistic or Aspergers, but the diagnosis isn’t definite. His condition dominates many aspects of their lives, but the book is not about Matthew: it is about Graham and Audra and their marriage. Graham - whose POV dominates - was previously married to someone called Elspeth (very different from Audra), who comes back into their social lives.

Graham and Audra are trying hard to build some kind of life for Matthew, which leads them to Cub Scouts, and then to Origami Club, and eventually to an origami convention in Connecticut. They also attend a wedding on Long Island, and host a Thanskgiving for a most varied assortment of people – including Elspeth, who is a high-flying lawyer, but is mistaken for a caterer. All of these scenes are WILDLY funny, breath-takingly, gasp-makingly so. (I can’t imagine this book has not been optioned for a movie – I’m just surprised it isn’t out yet.)

But there is a charm and a kindness about the book as well, and it is also full of hilarious and wholly recognizable thoughts about raising children (whether special needs or not), and organizing a social life, and maintaining a marriage, and being a friend. A series of houseguests inhabit the family’s den (for not-always-adequate reasons) and Graham is very funny about that too:
This is what life had taught Graham about houseguests: they drained your batteries. The very best of them left you a little juice, just enough to miss them once they’d gone.
--and he thinks there should be a means to deal with them:
It would be far simpler and more effective if you could march your houseguest over to a bench in Central Park and say, You just sit right there while I go home and read the newspaper in peace. I’ll be back to pick you up in two hours. And if your houseguest was of the older, feebler variety, and you feared they might be mugged or beaten in the park, you could take them to a movie, possibly a matinee. Actually, there should be a houseguests’ club, like the kids’ club in a resort, where your houseguest could watch movies and play games and have a snack while you recharged your batteries.
standard Deviation 4The descriptions and the writing are wonderful. There is a maple coffin with brass trimmings that looks like Audra’s earring box. One of the houseguests, the afternoon doorman Julio, is lovely and
Graham wanted desperately to be someone like Julio, who smoked cigarettes in the dark, the tips of them red as lipstick, hot as tears.
Graham likes cooking and baking:
In another life, he would have made an excellent owner of a safe house in the Underground Railroad. He would have always been happy to get up in the middle of the night and poke up the fire, listen to the fugitives’ tales while he fried ham steaks and made hot biscuits…Now he was in charge of medical ventures for a venture capitalist firm. There was just no market for underground safe houses anymore.

Standard deviation 5
Audra is hard to describe without making her sound incredibly annoying: she talks non-stop, is very interested in sex in a straightforward way, and knows everything about everyone, but still she is a delight.
Audra could converse with a statue. (In fact, once in the ER she had had a long talk with a man who turned out to have had a stroke and could only communicate by blinking.)
She has tips for how to get out of doing things – say ‘I’m just in kind of a crazy situation, and I can’t’.

And it would take too long to explain why one of the funniest lines in the book comes when describing parents talking to other children to encourage friendships:
On and on. Until you understood—truly understood, on an emotional level—why simultaneous interpreters have the highest suicide rate of any profession.
The book is described as ‘the best feel-good novel around’, but that doesn’t do it justice at all. Better is the description from the NYT review:
As with marriage, it is easier to catalog this novel’s individual sly charms than it is to nail down the essential, quicksilver thing that makes it such a success.

And, like all the best funny books, it has moments of great depth and melancholy, of real, distraught feelings. The characters are all truly recognizable –  people you feel you know, but also absolute individuals. I think if I got in a lift with them I would know them. The book is an amazing achievement.

The earrings above are origami earrings, as worn by the wife of Clayton, the origami club leader…
Graham frowned. “You think wearing paper-airplane earrings is the worst part of being married to Clayton?”
The orange scenes above are NOT origami (the origami club would be furious with me) but creations of the Japanese artist Terada Mokei.


  1. Oh, Moira, this sounds absolutely hilarious! I have heard conversations exactly like the one you describe in the supermarket, too - so true to life. And the difference between Graham and Audra about the pears - pitch perfect. I can see how you enjoyed this book so well. It sound like there's some solid character development, too, which is all the better. I will definitely have to look for this one.

    1. Exactly, I thought the conversations were so recognizable, particularly the ones between couples who know each other well but can still mystify each other. I think you will enjoy it if you decide to read it.

    2. The line about pear marinade reminded me of a very nice-looking, well-dressed middle aged couple I came up behind at the local supermarket several Christmas seasons ago. They were staring into the poultry case and the man said despairingly "I just can't do duck again this year."

      It sounded so much like a New Yorker cartoon that I had to turn around so they wouldn't see me laughing.

    3. I was actually seeing it as a New Yorker cartoon as I read it... perfect.

  2. I might enjoy this, I will look into it. I used to aspire to do origami but never was any good at it.

    1. The origami in this book is whole levels ahead of anything most of us have tried! After reading it, I pulled up pictures of various origami models on Google - they were amazing. Though there is a lot of emphasis on insects, spiders, weird sea creatures. They don't seem to pick beautiful and elegant wildlife to make..

  3. Hello, I often read your blog for your thoughtful and comprehensive book reviews. I haven't commented before but felt compelled to come out of lurkdom and agree with you about Standard Deviation. It's my favourite book in so so long. I read it in February and then read it again in July and loved it just as much the second time. I almost never read books twice. I'm a little in love with Graham and a lot annoyed with Audra and I'm so in awe of Katherine Heiney's wit and observation. If you fancy more of KH, the short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow is perfection too.

    1. Nice to meet you! Thanks for commenting, and so glad to read another superfan of this book: the truth is that I have read it twice in the past month, I loved it so much (which is almost unique for me). I was contemplating the short story collection - I am not a fan of stories, but was tempted because I loved her writing so much - and now I will go ahead.

  4. Avoid...unless of course I get insomnia.

    1. Though actually, anyone who has had children would find something in this book, and it is really really funny...

  5. Had to come look this up. My pal Steph Aulenback is reading the book on your recommendation and loving it. Now I need to find myself a copy.

    1. I have no hesitation in pushing this one: it might not be for everyone, but I can't imagine what kind of person would not get something out of it. And have just followed your friend on Twitter!

  6. I have just finished "Standard Deviation" which I ordered after having read your post on it - and I loved it! There were so many passages I wanted to mark that I had to give up after a while - every other page would have been earmarked. I can't resist quoting the one from the origami convention, though, when Graham sits with Matthew during the first session and then meets up with Audra, who meanwhile "had unpacked their suitcases, removed the macadamia nuts from the minibar so Matthew wouldn't eat them, called down to the front desk for extra conditioner, explored the fitness room, and bought a knock-off Chloé hand bag in the parking lot from a Hispanic man named Smoke". Graham admires the handbag and tells his wife she's done really well, but…"He didn't actually think that. He actually thought that there was a limit on how many handbags any one person needed and that limit was probably one. But Graham thought that the secret to understanding women (if in fact there was a secret and they could be understood at all) was to admire their purchases."

    It's almost too much; this particular passage actually made me giggle three times: first at the description of Audra's activities, which are so typically her, then at the male point of view of how many handbags a person needs, and then at the coup de grace of the secret to understanding women. I am reminded of Jane Austen commenting on "Pride and Prejudice" in a letter to her sister Cassandra that it was almost too light and bright and sparkling - it needed to be broken up by some passages of solid sense so as to make the reader appreciate the sparkling ones more. Heiny spoils the reader with a fireworks of glittering gems on almost every page, each one of them being enough to make a chapter shine.

    Oh and what really made me break down howling with laughter was that horribly expensive and generally just horrible fishing trip and the reflection on it afterwards: "It was not the least fun Graham had ever had for four hundred dollars - that honor was reserved for a mule ride up a mountain, where Graham's mule had died and Graham had to hike back with the sobbing guide - but, oh man, it was pretty close."

    I just hope Heiny hasn't used up all her sparkle in this one book, because I would really, really like to read more from her.

    1. SO GLAD you loved it, and yes I could have quoted ever second para from it given the chance. And everything you say about it is true and exactly how I feel. I just want to read it again now... And yes, fingers crossed for the future..


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