Every fortnightly I drop by the local grocer to pick up some essential household items and dairy products. When I saw that there were fictions and non-fiction books being laid out for sale, I could not resist the temptation of picking up a couple of books to add to my collection. While browsing through quickly to see if there were any interesting ones to pick up, Standard Deviation and its blue cover with images of Origami bird caught my attention.
Standard Deviation is a bittersweet story about a marriage that is under stress. Catherine Heiny keeps the narration light and insightful about the age-old institutions: marriage and parenting through her cleverly drawn characters . It is about how marriage is when the initial romance buzz has worn off and reality has checked in. The story is relatable.
Audra Dautry is Graham Cavanaught’s second wife and she is everything his first wife, Elspeth was not. Audra and Graham live in parallel universe and they try to create an ordinary life for Matthew, their 10-year-old son who has Asperger’s. Audra is open and gregarious to the extent that she will invite random people to their home to stay and the eccentric members of their son’s Origami club to Thanksgiving. Life with talkative and super friendly Audra can be exhausting for 56-year-old Graham who is introverted. One day befuddled Graham decides to look up Elspeth on the internet after bumping into her at a deli ordering a Reuben sandwich with French dressing at the café.
‘ Graham took his first sip of whisky and typed Elspeth’s name into the search engine.’
‘Elspeth didn’t have a Facebook page, but that wasn’t really surprising. If someone asked her if she was on Facebook, she would probably say, “ Why do I need to be on Facebook?” (She had always been a conversation stopper kind of person.)’
His ex-wife isn’t on Twitter or Instagram, either. He can only find her at Stover, Sheppard’s website. ‘There she was : Elspeth Osbourne, partner, mergers and acquisitions.’
As the story begins, in the midst of dealing with day to day difficulties and their love for a child with Asperger, enter his ex-wife into his life with Audra who has always wanted to know her. Can one possibly love two women who are vastly different in their personalities? How can Graham be attracted to Audra’s obliviousness and also Elspeth’s iciness?
Here is a snippet of the conversation between Graham and Audra as they talk about Elspeth when they start socializing with Elspeth and her partner Bentrup. To Graham, Elspeth and Bentrup seem an entirely platonic couple, like Bert and Ernie but Audra is curious about the kind of sex they have and whether she makes him wash his hands first etc. Audra is hilarious.
‘Audra shook her head. “ But she’s so fastidious and I’m so notoriously unfastidious.”
Notorious to whom? The general population or men sh’d had sex with or what ?
Audra stopped stirring and looked at him. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her skin was flushed from the heat of the double boiler. Graham would not have improved one single feature of her face.’
Then Graham finds out about Audra from an unexplained charge on their credit card.
‘ He didn’t get up from his desk. “ There’s a charge on the credit card, “ he said “Back in Decemeber. A French restaurant in the Village.”
She opened her mouth slightly and then paused. He could almost see her considering various explanations and rejecting them.’
Audra tells Graham that she has wanted so many times to tell him.
‘“ You’re having an affair,” he said flatly.
“Not an affair,” she said, as though scandalized.” More of a – a flirtation that got a little bit out of control. His name is is Jasper and he’s a photographer.”’
When Audra wants to tell Graham more about Jasper, Graham realizes that he does not want to know any of it and he stops her from talking about her almost affair, her almost lover. He is afraid that he cannot survive if he were forced to hear any details as Audra is a very detail-oriented person. Once upon a time, Audra had said worriedly to Graham, “ What if we run out of things to talk about?”
‘Oh, life was thick with irony now. Sort of like baklava, layer after layer pressed down on each other, with grit in between the layers and honey glossed over everything to make it sweet. He was pleased with this analogy , or as close to pleased as he go in these days where it seemed all emotions lay under a cool frost. He wanted to tell Audra about it. But he didn’t, because not only would she have gasped and said, “ Baklava! Jesus, I’d better order some for the Greek Room,” but because he didn’t want to give anything right now – no gift, no peace offering- no matter how humble.’
Katherine Heiny is clever in translating the ordinary and mundane marriage life into something relatable in real life. Standard Deviation is an excellent feel-good read for the weekend if you want something satirical and charming as its narration is injected with humour. Standard Deviation is its author’s debut novel.
The book opens with ‘Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life’, a quotation from Laurie Colwin. I have since learnt that Colwin died in 1992 and she was an author who wrote about contemporary life and manners in the domesticated world. click