Penguin Random House
"Early Morning Riser" by Katherine Heiny, Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pp.

Romantic entanglements bring humor and heartache to small town

Katherine Heiny’s novel transplants readers to Boyne City, Michigan, through the keen eyes of the town’s new schoolteacher.

“Early Morning Riser” begins with a song. Rather, it starts with a quote from a song, also dubbed “Early Morning Riser” and released by The Weepies in 2015. It’s worth a listen. The bouncy tune, with its smitten lyrics and blats of cheerful brass, sets the tone and pace for this funny, smart, and enormously kind-hearted novel about relationship foibles and rewards. 

Author Katherine Heiny begins the story 2002, as Jane, a 20-something Michigander, settles into her new life in Boyne City (an actual berg of 3,500 residents in the north of the state’s mitten). A second grade teacher hired by the local school, Jane has thus far made one friend – Freida, the town’s eccentric music instructor who’s forever whipping out her mandolin to narrate the moment in song. Jane has also fallen for Duncan Ryfield, an easy-going divorced woodworker who looks “like the Brawny paper towel man” and shows up one morning after Jane gets locked out of the house in her PJs. 

Duncan turns out to be Jane’s almost dream boyfriend. He’s sweet, chatty, and quick to offer a helping hand. He also knows the ins and outs of life in Boyne City, including the tales and tics of many of its residents.

And therein lies the problem. Upon learning the name of Jane’s new love, Freida delicately describes Duncan as “extremely ... social.” When Jane presses, Frieda replies, “I think he’s had enough girlfriends for, like, a lot of forty-two-year-olds.” Then she adds, “Maybe even for a lot of eighty-four-year-olds.”

The struggle to feel loved and seen by a guy who’s seen and loved the majority of Boyne City’s female population frazzles Jane and serves as a key relationship challenge in a novel bursting with them. 

(Some readers may wish to know that sexual situations and drinking occur in the novel.)

As Jane’s social circle expands, the dynamics of small-town interactions (unavoidable encounters, minimal privacy, inescapable history) play out in honest, hilarious ways. Along with Freida, readers meet Duncan’s ex-wife Aggie, a real estate agent and unabashed meddler whose voice often throbs with “bossy satisfaction.” There’s also Jimmy, an outgoing, guileless 30-year-old who works at Duncan’s shop and has an unnamed developmental disability. 

These aren’t necessarily the friends Jane would have chosen, but they come with the Duncan and Boyne City territory. Heiny allows each quirky character to be fully, complicatedly human: sometimes frustrating and petty, sometimes supportive and generous. This is particularly true for Aggie, who hovers on the edge of Jane and Duncan’s life like a drone, yet showers them with her culinary gifts; and for Jane herself. Readers receive a steady dose of her inner grumblings, judgy reactions, and insecure fretting while witnessing her efforts to be patient and kind.

The most entertaining relationship in the book belongs to Jane and her mother Phyllis, a galumphing, tactless force who lives down in Grand Rapids. Heiny’s perfectly tuned prose, wry observations, and spot-on dialogue nail their rocky encounters. But even Phyllis defies stereotypes. Upon meeting Jimmy and receiving the full brunt of his ever-querying mind, Phyllis reacts with patience and unruffled goodwill. Jane is relieved. “Sometimes being with her mother was like crossing a desert: long, hard stretches of burning sand that exhausted you, but every once in a while ... a little oasis of kindness.”

The story unfolds over 17 years; one-to-four-year gaps separate the chapters. Heiny makes the most of this time-leaping device, often ending sections with cliffhangers: a surprise twist in a relationship, an unfortunate wedding, an accident that throws lives into turmoil, a character going into labor as a snowstorm descends. 

As Jane matures, the contrast between her professional self (poised, spontaneous, in command of the classroom) and her personal self (anxious, eager-to-please, a bit bitter) narrows, with confident Jane getting the upper hand. She also grapples with gnawing guilt. Suddenly responsible for Jimmy’s care, Jane progresses from certainty that her role in a tragic event has doomed his life, to forgiveness and a fresh view of their friendship. It’s satisfying, believable growth.

The novel’s deft dialogue produces many of the book’s laughs. “Andy and Gladys had a falling out over whether Call of Duty is historically accurate,” says Duncan to Jane, nixing their inclusion at a BBQ. Equally funny are the beats and tropes of elementary school, from a field trip gone awry to odd-duck guest presenters, to the Good Manners Wall in the classroom. Heiny inserts moments of grace and wonder as well – hushed snowfalls, leaves shining “like a million tiny shifting mirrors.”

“Early Morning Riser” closes with a literal cartwheel. It’s an exuberant and fitting finale. Grab the book and get up early, stretch out midday, or stay up late. This laugh-out-loud, good-humored tale is a head-over-heels delight.

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