Saturday, July 15, 2017



Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny and Another Marvelous Thing by Laurie Colwin

                                                     By Margaret S. Hamilton


“Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life.” Colwin, “My Mistress” in Another Marvelous Thing
 Heiny uses the quote from Colwin’s story as the epigraph of her debut novel, Standard Deviation.

Heiny'sprotagonist, Graham Cavanaugh, is twelve years into his second marriage to Audra Daltry, his previous mistress, though he maintains a close friendship with his first wife, Elspeth Osbourne. He and Audra run a chaotic household that includes various “house guests” who stay for months at a time in the den. They are devoted to their ten-year- old son, Matthew, who scored more than one standard deviation above average for oversensitivity to stimulation and social development problems, and was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

"Life went on…Your child folded origami and your wife obsessed about United Nations Day and the afternoon doorman, Julio, lived in your den because—because—well, Graham wasn’t exactly sure why. Bedbugs? Landlord dispute? He couldn’t remember.” (p.151)

Heiny's characters inhabit the same world as Colwin’s: they have responsible and well-paying jobs, live in doorman buildings in Manhattan, and send their children to private schools. Heiny nails the social mores of this privileged group—how they talk and dress, their fears, aspirations and desires.

"They began walking again, slowly, clutching each other and concentrating on the ground in front of them. Graham took very short steps, and Audra tottered next to him, holding out her free hand, fingers splayed, for extra balance. He wondered what other people thought of them. He and Audra must look like the newest of lovers, or the frailest of seniors, or the drunkest of partygoers—or anything, really, other than the survivors they were.” (p.319)


I’ve been a Laurie Colwin fan since her first book was published in 1974. “My Mistress”, told from Francis (Frank) Clemons’s indulgent and exasperated perspective, is the first in an interconnected group of eight stories, told in alternating points of view, about his affair with Josephine (Billy) Delielle.

"She does not flirt, cajole, or wear fancy underwear. She has taken to referring to me as her ‘little bit of fluff,’ or she calls me her mistress, as in the sentence: ‘Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life.’” (p.4)

Frank is an economist who works from home and is happily married to a successful interior designer. His two year on-and-off affair with Billy is probably his last fling, as his children enter adulthood and marry. Billy is much younger, a graduate student who teaches historical economics while she completes her dissertation. Billy has known her economist husband since childhood and detours into an affair, presumably for the experience, before she settles down and has a child with her husband.

Frank wears expensive clothing and enjoys good food and gracious entertaining in his lavish home. Billy dresses in her younger brother’s hand-me-ups, and lives a spartan existence in a minimally-furnished duplex with no food in the refrigerator.

"My wife is precise, elegant, and well-dressed, but the sloppiness of my mistress knows few bounds. Apparently I am not the sort of man who acquires a stylish mistress—the mistresses in French movies who rendezvous at the cafes in expensive hotels and take their cigarette cases out of alligator handbags, or meet their lovers on bridges wearing dashing capes. My mistress greets me in a pair of worn corduroy trousers, once green and now no color at all, a gray sweater, an old shirt of her younger brother’s which has a frayed collar, and a pair of very old, broken shoes with tassels, the backs of which are held together with electrical tape.” (p.3)

Other than the field of economics and spouses who frequently travel, Frank and Billy have nothing in common, and yet they love each other.

"Billy and I have the world right in place. Nothing flutters, changes, or moves. Whatever is being preserved in our lives is safely preserved.  It is quite true, as Billy, who believes in function, points out, that we are in each other’s life for a reason, but neither of us will state the reason. Nevertheless, although there are some cases in which love is not a good or sufficient reason for anything, the fact is, love is undeniable.” (p.19)

Afterseveral attempts, Billy breaks things off with Frank and becomes pregnant. “Another Marvelous Thing,” the title story, details her baby’s difficult birth. The collection of stories ends with the former lovers and Billy’s baby having a drink in a bar.

Katherine Heiny has the ability and discerning eye and ear to continue writing witty satires about the lives of the privileged in Manhattan. Laurie Colwin died in 1992, much too soon. I hope Heiny and Maria Semple, who writes about Seattle in a similar but more hilarious vein, will continue to write their comedic satires and fill the gap left by Colwin’s premature death.

Readers, have you read Katherine Heiny’s books, or Laurie Colwin’s books, stories, and cookbooks?




  1. Both sound delightful, Margaret. I've not met Heiny yet, but I think that I may have to make her acquaintance. Laurie Colwin is an old friend from her Gourmet days. I remember when her death was announced at the end of her last column. I felt as if I lost a friend. Yes, she wrote of cooking, and of a world that somehow seemed to breathe rarified air, but her voice and her stories made me consider her a friend.

  2. Kait, on dark cold winter afternoons I sometimes sit at the kitchen table with my hot cocoa and browse in Colwin's cookbooks. It is like sitting down with an old friend.

    Warren, thanks for checking in.

  3. Thanks for introducing me to some new ideas and books! I will check them out.

  4. Margaret, I've never heard of either author before. I'll have to check them out.

  5. Gloria, I know you would enjoy her cooking essays. Kathleen, my favorite Colwin short story is "The Lone Pilgrim."