I once took my children to Butterfly World, a new venture near where my parents live in Hertfordshire. One day the owners planned to build a giant glass dome that would be a thing of wonder but for now they had a large-ish greenhouse filled with plants and butterflies. My children walked about with their arms outstretched, hoping a butterfly would land on them. A stern woman in a green uniform was circulating, and delivered a short, pointed talk about how the butterflies could be easily damaged and that we must not even think about trying to touch them. She left and my children and I sat on a little low wall next to a tray of fruit. Suddenly my three-year old daughter screamed. A large black butterfly had landed on her arm. My instinct was to flick it off immediately and I reached out a hand but then I remembered the butterfly guardian and looked up to find the slightly anguished but also sympathetic gazes of the other parents present (most of the crowd if I’m honest). There was a collective suspended moment – what would I do? And then, mercifully, the butterfly decided to fly off on its own. And although it was a hot day and my husband wasn’t there because he travelled a lot – still does – and like all my outings with the children when they were young I was stressed-out and anxious the whole time – and although butterfly world is no more because of course with such wildly impractical plans the owners ran out of money and it had to close – I still remember that day incredibly fondly, a day full of sunshine and my daughter who wanted to touch a butterfly and in the end did.
Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny is full of small incidents like this, with characters who seem like people you know or once met. The book follows the course of seventeen years in the life of Jane, a schoolteacher whose job brings her to Boyne City, Michigan. She falls in love with the handsome and charismatic Duncan only to discover that he is the local Lothario and she is constantly encountering women he has slept with. His pretty and accomplished ex-wife Aggie is a particular source of tension being still on such friendly terms with Duncan that he regularly mows her lawn. Gradually Jane gets to know more of the residents and becomes a part of small-town life.
It's a book that initially kept wrong-footing my expectations, used as I am to things of a far darker bent. But this book is a darkness-free zone and once I felt sure it wasn't a trick I put my wariness aside and settled down to enjoy myself. It's not that bad things don't happen, for they do, and one of the very pleasing things about this novel was the way in which Heiny captures the ordinary dramas of life. It's more there's a mindset here that tends to see things in a positive light and not to look too closely at anything that might disturb that viewpoint. At one point, for example, Jane admits to feeling exhausted and trapped in her role as the family breadwinner (for Duncan's woodworking business probably only just about breaks even, so lackadaisical is his approach to work) but this doesn't then translate in to a chain of anger and resentment, difficult conversations and perhaps even life-changes. Instead the thought is acknowledged and then let go as Jane focuses on things she does enjoy.
I read Heiny's previous book Standard Deviation a couple of years ago and while I enjoyed it, I found it a bit frustrating that the characters didn't really change or develop (and click through if you're curious to read my review over on the Gram). I had less of a sense of that here, and liked it more. There's much more of a feeling of lives lived – at one point nearing the end of the book I had a moment of sadness knowing I would have to leave Jane and her friends and relations behind – but I think Heiny gives you enough that you can continue to imagine how they all go on just fine. I should also mention that Heiny's writing is full of brilliant sharp, occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy; she's particularly great at set pieces like dinner parties or, in this book, a disastrous wedding.
If you have a heart of darkness like mine you might find yourself mildly resentful that these characters get to live their lives untroubled by worries about climate change or pandemics or racism or political unrest, that they mostly all get happy endings and enjoyable sunsets. Would it be good for book club? I’m not sure – it’s well-written, likely to please everyone and criticising it feels like punching a kitten. But if you are after a warm hug of a read (and post-lockdown, who isn't?) then I recommend this highly.
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