Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

It’s a novel, not a statistics book, and actually the novel has nothing to do with statistics, but that’s fine, I didn’t read the book because of its title, I read it because it was mentioned on the radio. Anyway, I liked the book. It reminded me a lot of Anne Tyler, and that’s not a bad thing.

The one thing that struck me about Heiny’s book more than anything else, though, was how Waspy it was. Really Waspy. Really really Waspy. OK, one of the characters had an Irish last name so that doesn’t quite fit—but he’s Protestant and he seems to have no ethnicity at all. Certainly nothing about any Irish ancestors. His first name is Graham, for chrissake! And being an American while having no ethnicity—that’s pretty Waspy.

So one thing I enjoyed about reading this novel was that it was a kind of travelogue into an alien culture that exists in parallel with mine. The characters live in New York—not far from our neighborhood, actually—but in this alternative world in which everybody has a “den” in their apartment and eat potato salad and drink a lot of alcohol. When they’re not drinking, they’re thinking about drinking. And in a Waspy way—we’re not talking six-packs of Bud here. The female characters are always putting on make-up. The characters get around in the city by driving their car! Who does that? Lots of people do, I guess. They live among us. The city—any city—is many parallel cities.

I’m worried that I’m giving the impression here that I’m making fun of this novel. I’m not. It’s as legitimate to write about Wasps as it is to write about Irish people, or Jews, or Nigerian immigrants, or whatever. I’ve read lots and lots of fiction about Wasps and Wasp-adjacent cultures: Cheever, Updike, etc. This book was particularly fun because the cultural characteristics were taken up a notch into the level of parody: the characters didn’t just drink, it was more like alcohol was a major presence in their lives. The main male character wasn’t just a self-styled gourmet chef, he cooked retro favorites like beef Stroganoff. And so on. It was a comic novel, in the style of Philip Roth or, as I said above, Anne Tyler.

I’m not saying I liked the book because of the ethnic stereotyping. I liked it because of the writing and the characters and the situations. Lots of funny and perceptive lines, interesting interactions between the characters. The ethnic bit was just something that jumped out at me.

P.S. I wanted to check on the Anne Tyler comparison so I picked one of her books off the shelf, and it featured this ’80s-vintage blurb: “Among the finest woman novelists publishing in America today. — Philadelphia Inquirer.” Oof!

5 thoughts on “Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

  1. As long as we are looking into diverse ethnic and behavioral groups,
    and even more provocatively
    which should be contrasted with
    “most amazing person that ever lived”

    and some further elucidation which I will leave to the interested reader.

  2. I did a quick search through some reviews (NYT, WaPo, NPR, etc.). None of them mentions drinking. I guess they take it as an unremarkable part of the scene just as the characters do. The characters are often with a glass of wine at hand, but they don’t get drunk. We’re not in Cheever country. I also didn’t think that the comic tone was like Roth; it lacked his argumentativeness. It seemed more a like a happy version of Lorrie Moore, without the bitterness.

    • Jay:

      But it wasn’t just that they drink a lot; it was also that they think a lot about drinking. When they’re not drinking, they’re looking forward when they’ll next get to drink. When they see alcohol, they are relieved that soon they’ll get to drink. I know it’s a stereotype, but . . . they think about alcohol the way I think about food.

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