There were many moments in Early Morning Riser that made me laugh out loud in recognition. An episode where the main character, Jane, coaxes a wailing child to the car with marshmallows and milk after ‘a temper tantrum so severe that it might have qualified as a psychotic break’ so precisely pinpoints the absurdity of life with small children that it is hard to know whether to laugh or wince. ‘Patrice took a sip and yelled, Kalt! Apparently she had returned from psychosis speaking German.’
Yet Katherine Heiny’s new novel isn’t so much about parenting or marriage (a common target of her merciless yet affectionate wit) as it is a deceptively laidback meditation on everyday life in general: what ordinary days look like, and how they roll into weeks and months and years and a life, with so much introspection and yet so much obliviousness too.
We first meet Jane, a primary school teacher, in 2002, when she is 26 and has locked herself out of her new house in Boyne City, Michigan. She meets Duncan, a charming locksmith/carpenter who has slept with almost every woman in the state, and after unlocking her door, the two talk. Jane makes an omelette: ‘This was on a Friday, and neither Jane nor Duncan left the house until Monday morning, when Jane had to go to school.’
Time passes both swiftly and slowly. A cast of characters arrives — Aggie, Duncan’s supercilious ex-wife; Jimmy, his sweet and developmentally challenged proxy brother; Freida, Jane’s lamentably single friend — and they do amusing things. Somewhere, between anecdotes and life-altering tragedies, decades go by. In its commitment to a female protagonist’s erratic interior world, it reminded me more of Heiny’s excellent and quirky short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow than her debut novel Standard Deviation, which had clearer narrative issues to resolve.
Heiny builds our affections solidly, by imperceptible degrees. We come to care very much whether Jimmy gets a girlfriend, or how Jane, wonderfully imperfect and forever veering between simpering, stoicism and seething envy, can still bear to invite Aggie to dinner. The book is raucously funny, but what sustains it is an ability to flip seamlessly from farce to tender emotional reckonings. One minute Jane is guiltily considering how Jimmy’s suit makes him look like a convict on day release, then the next: ‘It couldn’t be that Jimmy would go all his life having terrible things happen to him, would it? Not someone as kind and loving as Jimmy.’ Rare flashes of gravitas stick like marshmallow on a car seat, unforgettable but never fully cleared away, absorbed instead into the maelstrom of daily life.
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