Early Morning Riser

Early Morning Riser is a story about family – the one you’re born into and the one you find.

Katherine Heiny published this charismatic novel in 2021 and it might be the bright spot of joy you need right now. I think it would appeal to any adult, any gender.

The heroine of the story, Jane, is like a chatty, funny friend, full of kind and not-so-kind observations. Sometimes her lens is pointed at herself and sometimes at others, but it’s always with an honest look.

Young Jane is a 2nd grade teacher, new to Boyne City, Michigan. The story begins in 2002 when she’s new to town and ends in 2019. It’s a happily ever after type of ending, sweet and satisfying.

Jane has a meet-cute with the local handyman / locksmith Duncan. He’s older, handsome and easygoing, but to her dismay he’s already hooked up with just about every other woman in town. It makes for some awkward moments, but for the most part Jane takes it all in stride. They’re a solid couple but when Duncan admits that he doesn’t want to marry again Jane is smart enough to break it off. He’s divorced but still good friends with his ex-wife who also lives in town.

This book has some of the quirkiest characters I’ve read in a long time. I wonder if any of Heiny’s friends recognize themselves in the book or if she just has an extraordinary imagination. Both, I suppose. She is a talented writer and I enjoyed the original storyline as well as her style. Early Morning Riser is written in third person and we get lots of peeks into Jane’s inner thoughts. Some of them are jarring – she’s a nice person but has her dark moments. A woman can only take so much!

Duncan is probably the least quirky of the bunch. He likes the company of women and in a small town he can’t help but run into past girlfriends and lovers at every turn. He’s as thoughtful as he is horny.

Aggie, Duncan’s ex-wife, is a real estate agent, bossy and controlling, but also loyal and generous. Her second husband is Gary, a State Farm agent, the polar opposite of the good-looking and engaging “Jake from State Farm.” I don’t really get him, but I guess that’s the point, no one does but Aggie. He acts more like a dull and sulky teenager than grown man and he relies on Aggie for just about everything.

At one point Aggie has to go out of town and since Gary can’t possibly stay at home alone, she drops him off at Jane’s house along with a photocopied sheaf of instructions. These include his likes and dislikes, dos and don’ts, foods he won’t touch, etc. Jane tries to be accommodating but she has her limits.

The paperwork is like the list Jane leaves for her substitute teacher when she’s going to be out on maternity leave. It’s equal parts funny and heartbreaking with entries like “Samuel never brings milk money; I pay for his milk,” “Tyler must never, ever be allowed to hold the hamster,” and “Cameron will talk with whomever he sits next to, so changing the seating plan will not make him quieter.” God bless caring teachers.

Now that I think about it, there are quite a few instances of lists in Heiny’s book, a method she employs masterfully. Jimmy, who is Duncan’s carpentry shop helper and “simple-minded” to use Jane’s mom’s term, falls for the new server at the ice cream shop. Her name is Raelynne and the list of her likes and dislikes as recounted by Jimmy is epic. They’re mundane and ordinary – we all have preferences – but somehow when they’re jammed together in a giant paragraph they become something else. Some of my favorites: she prefers ‘being early to being late, the beach to the woods, laundry to dishes, soup to sandwich, caffeine to sugar and naps to yoga.’

Jimmy is observant, earnest and simple. He’s smart enough to know he has limitations, which frustrates him at times, but he’s lucky – he’s found his family in Duncan and Jane and the rest of the gang.

Jane is lucky, too. She meets her best friend Frieda at school. She’s a fellow teacher and musician who is never without her mandolin. The songs she plays, and the lyrics sometimes quoted in the book, are a nice touch. They reflect the mood of the scenes and give depth to the story.

Jane is young but wise and a student of human nature. She’s honed her skills at reading people from her time in the classroom with the kids as well as with their parents. It was fun to follow her through the years. One of her quirks that I can relate to is that she’s a thrift store regular, good at putting outfits together and decorating her home with found treasures. Small town, though, so it was inevitable that one of her buys would end up having a former owner recognize it. Like the soup tureen she uses for flowers that once belonged to Aggie and Duncan. Jane really can’t catch a break and escape Duncan’s history.

Early Morning Riser is a happy distraction with some unexpected twists. Katherine Heiny kind of reminds me of Jennifer Close – I reviewed her book The Hopefuls earlier this year. They’re both authors with something to say but they don’t pound you over the head with it. Doesn’t that sound good right about now?

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