Early Morning Riser
By Katherine Heiny
Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Bethanne Patrick
Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser may be this year’s funniest novel. There are not enough women authors on the Best Comic Novel lists, and she deserves a place on all of them, stat.
Women do write funny novels — but they aren’t always what we expect. When women write funny, sometimes the humor is quiet, mixing rhythms of daily work with life’s absurdities. You have to pay attention to a book like Heiny’s. She’s not working broad, she’s working as a broad, a woman confident enough in her understanding of the world to take it all down a notch.
Boyne City, Mich., the site of Early Morning Riser, got taken down several notches decades ago. It’s already a burg with few aspirations when 26-year-old Jane arrives from Grand Rapids, freshly hired to teach second grade and ready for her adult life to begin. With her thrift-shop style and cheerful demeanor, at first it seems the story might drift along the lines of oddball girl gets gallant guy and they live happily ever after.
However, those who have read Heiny’s previous work, such as Standard Deviation and Single, Carefree, Mellow, will know that she’s up to more than that. An early clue: She meets and falls for Duncan, who “looked like the Brawny paper towel man.” He’s so cartoonishly handsome that he’s already dated most of the women in Boyne City and beyond. He’s still friends with his pillar of perfection ex-wife, Aggie, and her husband, Gary, and after a brief liaison, Jane decides she’s had enough.
Over the course of the next 17 years, readers will learn what choices Jane makes next, which lead to two daughters, one of whom would test the limits of many saints. But those years also include the responsibility for a young man named Jimmy, labeled “slow learning,” whose care and feeding Jane takes over after an auto accident. She starts “Taco Tuesday” evenings, rarely involving tacos (usually pizza, or enchiladas — sometimes even beef Wellington), meant to provide company for Jimmy. As it turns out, even bad dinner parties can be a lot of fun.
While Jimmy’s life isn’t the only plot in this sweetly sardonic book, it does link the main characters in ways that are just plain sweet, showing off the strengths of small-town life alongside its myriad flaws. Jane’s friend Freida, for example, plays songs on her mandolin at every gathering — but that doesn’t mean Jane has to always love those songs. A willing resident of Boyne City, Jane hasn’t surrendered her essential individuality to its communal eccentricities. Like her comic-novel forebears — Flora in Cold Comfort Farm, Hazel in Made for Love, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — Heiny’s delightful protagonist contains multitudes and leaves us wanting to learn more about her life.