If a handful of characters were transported from Anne Tyler’s Baltimore to tiny Boyne City, Michigan, they might act a bit like the ones Katherine Heiny has gathered in Early Morning Riser. But Heiny’s gentle exploration of how we tiptoe and often stumble through the minefield of love is both fresh and consistently entertaining.
When second grade teacher Jane Wilkes meets Duncan Ryfield, they quickly fall in lust. But Jane’s attraction to Duncan, a handsome and capable woodworker who’s more skilled at starting projects than he is at finishing them, is complicated by the discovery that he is, as a friend politely puts it, “extremely . . . social”—meaning he’s slept with most of the available women in this part of rural Michigan. In particular, Duncan has a puzzlingly close relationship with his ex-wife, an aggressive, opinionated real estate agent, even though it’s been many years since their divorce and her remarriage.
Heiny’s novel navigates nearly 20 years of small-town life, with weddings—one canceled and two consummated—children and a con man’s shocking scheme. Some of these events combine to upend Jane and Duncan’s life when they become responsible for the care of Jimmy Jellico, a developmentally disabled man who works as a helper in Duncan’s shop. This unique relationship, and others among this novel's cast of characters, raises intriguing questions about the definition of family and how the families we inhabit from birth differ from those we create.
Though she mostly goes easy on her quirky creations, Heiny is unfailingly honest and never at a loss for a witty observation, as when she describes the run-up to Christmas in the early days of Jane and Duncan’s relationship as “sort of like the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of escalating tension.” Early Morning Riser is an amiable and observant novel with perfect pitch and plenty of grace notes along the way.