Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Erich Mayer

This amusing and insightful novel by Katherine Heiny is a delight from beginning to end.
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Book cover image: Standard Variation by Katherine Heiny.

Standard deviation is a mathematical term that measures the extent members of a group differ from the average. So readers not well versed in statistics might shy away from a novel with the title Standard Deviation, despite the delightful origami dogs on the book’s cover. But that would be a mistake.

Because this amusing and insightful novel by Katherine Heiny is a delight from beginning to end. Like all good humour it is funny because it is true to life. We see ourselves and our families and friends writ large. The people in this novel may or may not deviate from the average but they are certainly recognisable.

The main characters are Graham and Audra, a happily married couple. Although they have their ups and downs, they are unashamedly prosperous middle-class Americans living in a big city. They have a son, Matthew, who has special needs. Are they the average family? Does it matter?

Graham, the narrator of Standard Deviation, is an excellent and enthusiastic cook as well as a loving and considerate father and husband, despite harbouring more than a touch of nostalgia for his first marriage.

Meanwhile, Audra has a habit of befriending strangers and even bringing them home. She has long conversations with people she has never met before and might never see again. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the most intimate personal doings of her friends and acquaintances and little interest in world affairs. And she has a best friend to whom she tells absolutely everything, somewhat to Graham’s disquiet.

When Matthew gets obsessed with origami, his parents encourage him, even though the building housing the origami club he wants to join has ‘no doorman and the hallway had black-and-white hexagonal tile and smelled deeply of cabbage and rent control’.

The reader follows Matthew’s progress, meets Audra’s large circle of friends and acquaintances and enjoys Graham’s cooking almost as much as he does. When Graham is obliged to serve only white food on a white plate to a guest, you admire his culinary improvisation. When he goes to the bakery, you inhale the smell of fresh bread that is ‘everything that you wanted love to be, but so often isn’t: hot, sweet, comforting, full of promise, and so heartwarming it [makes] you want to do nice things for other people’.

Like most parents, Audra and Graham worry about their son, about his friends – or the lack of them – and whether they are appropriate. And of course they have to invite the parents of Matthew’s friends for dinner. They speculate that eventually Matthew will have girlfriends and wives and in-laws, all of whom would need to be invited for dinner.

When you come to the end of this book you will wish for more. You will have enjoyed sharing the lives of Audra and Graham for a few short years and will find it hard to relinquish the acquaintanceship.

Rating: 4½ stars out of 5

Standard Deviation

By Katherine Heiny

Harper Collins Australia

ISBN: 9780008105525
ISBN 10: 0008105529
Imprint: 4th Estate - GB
On Sale: 22/05/2017
Pages: 320

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog