Graham and Audra, What’s Holding Them Together; What’s Tearing Them Apart?
Opening line: “It had begun to seem to Graham, in this, the twelfth year of his second marriage, that he and his wife lived in parallel universes.” The wife, Audra, is the kind of person who knows everything about everyone and who talks, talks, talks nonstop about everything and nothing. He is the quiet sort. Their difference of opinion on how to ride in an elevator in their New York City apartment says it all.
Audra complains about Graham’s behavior saying, “We get in there with anyone from the building, and you just stand there, stiff as a soldier! Ignoring people like we don’t all know each other…Flipping through your mail like the other person is not dying for you to say, ‘Now, Mrs. Pomranky, I have been meaning to tell you how nice your hair looks,’ or ‘Mr. Fielder, please tell me all about how your daughter’s getting along in med school.’”
Meanwhile, “[Graham had] always assumed that everyone would rather ride in peace, desperate as they all were to get up to their apartments and have the first whisky of the evening, thereby restoring the will to live.”
Because the author keeps us inside of Graham’s head, we know that his need for whiskey has many causes. Listening to Audra non-stop is one. Sharing his home with various people Audra periodically takes under her wing – such as their building’s doorman – is another. But most important, is their ten-year-old son, Matthew who is autistic. His score “for oversensitivity to stimulation ranked more than a full standard deviation above the average for a child his age.”
In countless scenes, the author will show how much Graham loves and treasures Matthew, but at the same time, she has him confess that he wished for a “more standard son.” Indeed, “the thought of a child actor from central casting would have suited him just fine.”
Authors are encouraged to show their audience what they mean about a character as opposed to telling them about the character. Heiny does a superb job of this, thus we have 323 pages with scene after scene of Audra saying the hundreds of things an Audra-like character would say. Meanwhile, inside Graham’s head, we see how his vastly different personality processes it all. Additionally, she gives us scene after scene of the amazingness of Matthew – his skills at origami, for instance – while also reminding us of his difficulties with tying his shoes, riding a bike, trying new foods, wearing clothes with scratchy tags, or having his toenails clipped.
There is humor throughout such as when Audra decides they need to be friends with Graham’s ex-wife and her significant other. As the couples meet, Graham’s first thought is that Elspeth and Bentrup look like “an entirely platonic couple, like Bert and Ernie.”
But ping ponging with the humor is lots of pain. Graham also thinks: “It was really just amazing the way life kept grinding forward, demanding things of him. He had to get up and go to work and earn a living and cook dinner and be a parent, all on days when he didn’t know if he could manage to brush his teeth.”
This book doesn’t exactly have a plot. It could have continued on for hundreds of more pages allowing us to watch the ups and downs of life for Graham. Since I identified closely with his character, I am glad it did not. I was suffering from an oversensitivity to the stimulation provided by Audra’s character and was ready to get off that particular elevator.
I have read two books by Katherine Heiny, Standard Deviation and Early Morning Riser. It is interesting to note these similarities in the two books:
- In both books, there is an ex-spouse who is still in the picture. In Early Morning Riser, Duncan sees his ex-wife regularly. Indeed, he helps her by mowing her lawn. Additionally, Duncan and Jane socialize with Aggie and Gary. In Standard Deviation, Graham and Audra become friendly with Elspeth and Bentrup.
- In both cases, the new partner for the ex-wife is a strange, unimpressive character.
- In both cases the author explores the what if’s of the divorced couple reuniting. In Early Morning Riser, Jane fears Duncan is sleeping with Aggie. In Standard Deviation, Graham has an emotional affair with Elspeth, though Audra either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.
- It is also worthy of note that as each man married for a second time, his new wife was more than a dozen years younger.
- And most important, both new couples – Graham and Audra, and Duncan and Jane – are bound together by a special-needs person. For Duncan and Jane, it’s Jimmy Jellico. For Graham and Audra, it’s their son, Matthew.
- Both books are rich in humor and pathos.