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Katherine Heiny Shows Readers How to Pay Attention to the Little Things

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By Katherine Heiny

Jane loves Duncan. But should she?

Duncan is a handsome and friendly woodworker who moonlights as a locksmith in small-town Boyne City, Mich. He’s the guy everybody knows, wink-wink.

Jane is new in town. She’s a second-grade teacher who operates according to the rhythm of a child’s world. She understands that her students return to school in the fall on a “summer rock-star schedule and arrive at school still half-asleep.” She’s sympathetic to a little girl whose father, at a parent conference, exclaims, “Wow, Crystal’s in second already?” On a wintry day, she surrenders to her students’ collective longing and gives them a two-minute break to stare out the windows as fat snowflakes tumble from the sky.

Early in “Early Morning Riser,” Jane falls hard for Duncan, and it doesn’t take long for her to observe that he is “good with women the way other people are good with cars or numbers.” Every woman of reproductive age, it seems, knows him by name. After they start dating, he gives Jane a necklace for Christmas, and she recognizes it as identical to the one worn by one of his former girlfriends, a waitress at a local restaurant. Does he buy them in bulk? she wonders.

Does it matter? She’s not sure.

Years into their relationship, after their friend Jimmy moves in with them (you’ll agree that he should), she buys a new mattress for Duncan’s old bed. How ironic, she notes silently, that “a bed that had launched a thousand women’s orgasms — possibly tens of thousands — had come to rest in the room of a man who’d never had a girlfriend.”

Fortunately, Duncan is more complicated than that, as is everyone else in Katherine Heiny’s quiet whirlwind of a novel, which covers a single decade in Jane’s life. Just as things start to settle down, a tragic accident upends the community and Jane begins the hard work of figuring out what it really means to love another person. Is there a limit to how much the heart can hold?

[ Read an excerpt from “Early Morning Riser.” ]

Heiny writes about small-town life without ridicule or slapstick, and never resorts to idyllic depictions of a long-ago day that never existed. Gossip can be the trigger for neighbors’ concern, but kindness will get them to your front door.

Jane is self-deprecatory, but generous in her assessment of most everyone else, including the girl at the video store who “carried her breasts in front of her as though they were a couple of large cupcakes.” She will not be jealous of this girl, who is yet another ex of Duncan’s.

Jane picks up on things quickly. She senses old grudges that make the air “electric with jealousy.” A man’s stiff stride reminds her of “how some of her shyer students crossed the room to use the pencil sharpener.” The first time she meets Duncan’s ex-wife, Aggie, their conversation makes her feel “like a dog drinking from a water bowl while her owners talked over her head.”

At its heart, this is a serious story full of lightness. When Jane is sitting in her doctor’s waiting room, she notices a man whose dental-floss-thin mustache meets in narrow lines at his chin. “It looked like someone had circled an area on his face with a marker and said, ‘This here is where your mustache and beard should go.’” If only all of us women could distract ourselves this way before a pelvic exam.

And then there’s Jimmy, a kind man in his late 30s whom many describe as “slow learning” — but is he? Jimmy is as full a human being as anyone claiming residency in Boyne City. He is also the one person who can help Jane discover who she is meant to be.

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