Standard Deviation Katherine Heiny (2017)
You probably know someone like Standard Deviation’s Audra, a stream-of-consciousness, nonstop chatterer who talks to strangers on the bus and in the elevator, freely associating from one topic to all adjacent topics. You might find her endearing, or you might find her highly irritating and intrusive. Graham, her husband, finds her endearing most of the time, even when she proposes pretty outrageous activities, such as striking up a friendship with Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, whom he hasn’t seen in twelve years. In case you’re wondering, yup, Graham left Elspeth for the much younger Audra.
Katherine Heiny’s episodic novel takes us up and down the streets of Manhattan for the adventures of Graham and Audra; their ten-year-old son, Matthew; and Elspeth. Audra leads the way with hilarious monologues. For example, at an origami convention to which Graham and Audra have taken Matthew, Audra exclaims impatiently while waiting in a queue, “‘What I don’t understand about origami . . . is why can’t anyone like it a little bit? Why aren’t there nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of origami, the way there are nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of bondage?’”(110) Wherever Audra treads, innocent bystanders reel in shock.
But hidden in plain sight in this book is a serious examination of the difficulties of raising a child with autism spectrum disorder. The doctor diagnosing Matthew tells the parents, “’Matthew’s score on the questionnaires for oversensitivity to stimulation ranked more than a full standard deviation above the range for children his age.’” (232) This passage is where we finally find out what the title of the novel means. Heiny presents the case of young Matthew with clear-eyed, unsparing detail, and she presents his parents as devoted unreservedly to helping him become an independent adult. The plot of Standard Deviation trails off in about the final third of the book, but that may be to give the impression of how the lives of Graham and Audra and Matthew will continue in the same vein.
The third-person narrative of the novel is told mainly from Graham’s point of view, and Heiny offers us plenty of Graham’s musings on his family situation:
- “Who was this doctor to say that because of standard deviation, Matthew stood firmly on the stark cracked-earth desert of Asperger’s, that he would never feel the long cool green shade of normal?” (232)
- “Graham had been developing a theory lately that the parents of kids with Asperger’s also had Asperger’s only less pronounced. A milder Asperger’s. The seeds of Asperger’s . . . Of all the dozens of special-needs kids’ parents he knew, one parent of every couple always seemed a bit odd, a bit eccentric, a bit Aspergery.” (212)
Indeed, one wonders how Matthew’s mother, Audra, would be diagnosed.
After writing a draft of this review, I read some other major reviews. I was surprised that the reviewers focused on the relationship triangle of Graham, Audra (his current wife), and Elspeth (his ex-wife). That was certainly a sub-plot in the novel, but I found the relationship between Matthew and his parents (Graham and Audra) much more significant. Neither the highly amusing dialogue nor the Manhattan scenery detracts from this book’s thoughtful treatment of the issue of autism.