“Early Morning Riser” by Katherine Heiny

I almost gave up on Early Morning Riser after reading the first few chapters. Not because I disliked the book – on the contrary, it was very well written and quite charming, with a likable cast of characters – but only because it seemed to be somewhat meandering, and I wasn’t sure where it was headed. But boy, am I glad I stuck with it, as it turned out to be one of the most heartwarming books I have read.

Set in a small town, Boyne City, in Michigan, the protagonist is a young woman, Jane, who has just moved into town to take up the position of a second-grade teacher at the local elementary school. She meets and falls for Duncan, a woodworker who is also somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy and does a lot of handyman-type of work for many of the folks in the town. Duncan’s only employee is Jimmy, who is developmentally slow, and lives with his mother. To Duncan, Jimmy is almost like family, and he feels very protective towards him, as do most of the residents in this close-knit community. Most of the early chapters in the book are focused on Jane settling into Boyne City, her work in the school, the students in her class, her growing friendship with another teacher, her relationship with Duncan, her getting to know Duncan’s ex-wife with whom he is still friends, and overall, the many aspects of life in a small town.

It was all nice and sweet, and I was coasting along, when all of a sudden, the story took such a dramatic turn that I was almost shell-shocked. It happened on the evening before Jane’s wedding — not to Duncan, as they had both moved on to other partners – but to another man. Her mother had come down for the wedding, and Jane had always found her rather trying. Adding to Jane’s irritation that evening were the new shoes she was wearing for the rehearsal dinner – she had blisters all over her feet and could hardly walk. But she ended up having to walk home with her mother, with the added annoyance of being accompanied by Jimmy’s mother, who was rather talkative. When they reached her house, Jane couldn’t wait to temporarily get rid of both of them and take her shoes off. So she thrust her car keys to her mother and told her to go and drop Jimmy’s mother off. This impromptu errand she sends her mother on has devastating consequences – her mother, not being familiar with the place, gets into a car crash in which Jimmy’s mother is killed. (Jane’s mother, herself, survives the crash with a broken arm.)

While accidents, even fatal ones, happen often in books, movies, and sadly, even in real life, this accident in Early Morning Riser came as a real shock. Imagine the guilt that Jane feels! While she was not driving the car herself, she had asked her mother to do it, without thinking that her mother was new to the place and may have a problem with directions. Without a doubt, Jimmy’s mother’s death was her fault. Who would look after Jimmy now? Who would he live with? How would he manage alone?

This, then, is the main plot point of the story. It happens so suddenly that you don’t see it coming. Just as real life can change in an instant, so does life change for Jane in Early Morning Riser in the course of a single page. One thoughtless action can change the trajectory of our lives forever. Jane is now permanently responsible for Jimmy, and while she did let him live alone for a few months, that changed when he was swindled out of his house and savings by a conman. That’s when Duncan and Jane stepped in, got married, and brought Jimmy to live with them. They go on to have two daughters, and while it is not always easy for Jane to have Jimmy continue to live with them, she eventually realizes that he is an inseparable part of their family.

In addition to being such a heartrending and heartwarming story, Early Morning Riser was sprinkled with so many wise and wry insights and observations that I was left completely awestruck at the author’s talent. Here are two of my top ones.

This is when Jane and Duncan have become a couple again:

Oh, the joy of a shared life! The joy is not—as many people believe—building a future with someone, or opening your heart to another human being, or even the ability to gift each other money with limited tax consequences. The joy is in the dailiness. The joy is having someone who will stop you from hitting the snooze button on the alarm endlessly. The joy is the smell of someone else's cooking. The joy is knowing you can call someone and ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way over. The joy is having someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, because it is really no good when you watch it by yourself. The joy is hoping (however unrealistically) that someone else will unload the dishwasher. The joy is having someone listen to the weird cough your car has developed and reassure you that it doesn’t sound expensive. The joy is saying how much you want a glass of wine and having someone tell you, "Go ahead, you deserve it!"

This is after Jane and Duncan have married and are thinking about having a baby:

Jane had a theory that people spent too long deliberating small decisions and not enough time considering big, important ones. How many days—surely it added up to days—had she agonized over whether to cut bangs? How many hours had she spent debating the merits of wood versus laminate flooring? How many minutes of her life had she given to working out the number of calories in a salad? How many times had she visited the thrift store, looking for the perfect black cashmere sweater? (The answer: a lot. Cashmere isn’t often donated.) And yet, people get pregnant all the time just because one person was too lazy to get out of bed and hunt up a condom, people bought houses after a single viewing, people chose colleges based on whether the cafeteria served caffeinated beverages, people sent their mothers to drive other people’s mothers home without thinking about it at all.

And while there were so many parts of the story that were just plain heartrending, there were two that really stood out for me. The first was when Jane and Duncan visit Jane’s mother for Christmas. This is when Jimmy is living with them, and Jane is pregnant with her first child. Jane’s mother sends Duncan off to do some chores around the house, she asks Jane to go and decorate the Christmas tree in the family room, and she asks Jimmy if he would like to help her frost sugar cookies in the kitchen. While they are in the kitchen, she and Jimmy have a long chat about the baby that is coming, and she assuages Jimmy’s fear that he will drop the baby, advising him on how to hold it:

“Oh, you don’t need to worry.” Jane’s mother’s tone was certain, authoritative. “Anytime you want to hold the baby, Jane will set you up on the sofa with pillows propped all around you and put the baby in your arms. You won’t possibly be able to drop the baby because of all the pillows, you see. Lots of people hold babies that way. I’ll bet you’ll be a great help to Jane.”

The conversation continues with her giving Jimmy more reassurances and advice about how to help Jane with the baby, including telling him a secret about babies—“…if you hold them right next to your chest so they can feel your heart beating, they’ll sleep much longer than they do in a crib”—and that Jane would tell him—“Oh, Jimmy, I would be lost without you.”

“I sure would like that,” Jimmy sounded wistful. “Do you really think it will happen?”

“Without a doubt,” Jane’s mother said.

In the family room, Jane nodded in agreement. She would make certain of it.

I was so touched by this conversation. Jane’s mother had clearly contrived to get Jimmy alone in order to have this conversation with him. She might often be trying and annoying to Jane, but her essential humanity and goodness shine through with this.

And at the end of the book, at a family outing to a public beach they have all gone to, Jane’s younger daughter, Patrice, is finally able to do a cartwheel, which she has been trying to do for months now — like her older sister — but hadn’t quite succeeded.

Patrice turned another cartwheel, her round face flushed, her hair a glinting auburn tangle.

“Did you see, Mommy?” she yelled. “Did you see me?”

“Yes!” Jane answered. “I saw you!”

Patrice shaded her eyes. “Did you see, Jimmy?”

“I sure did!” Jimmy called from behind Jane, and Jane turned to look at him.

He was smiling proudly, his face as sweet and open as a sugar cookie. He was so happy for Patrice, so happy for all of them, so delighted by their accomplishments. Could anyone else, ever, be so devoted and selfless? Maybe Jane was wrong: maybe she had been wrong all these years. She’d spent so much time either feeling responsible for Jimmy or feeling sorry for him that she’s forgotten to love him.

I ended the book with a lump in my throat.

Early Morning Riser
Author: Katherine Heiny
Publisher: ‎ Knopf
Publication Date: April 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

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