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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New in paperback: The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan
Published by Penguin ISBN 9780143122272
Trade paperback, $14, 192 pages

I've never read a book by Stewart O'Nan, though I have heard good things about him.  His latest novel, The Odds: A Love Story, tells the story of Marion and Art, a middle-aged married couple on their way to Niagara Falls.

They are in severe financial trouble, about to lose their home to foreclosure and have a plan to hit a casino, with Art's sure-fire system to win enough money to save them.

As the story quietly unfolds, we find that Art and Marion are planning on separating, but I wasn't clear if it was related to the finances or because Marion was unhappy. We learn that Art had an affair a long time ago, and Marion has never really forgiven him. Marion recently had an affair with a woman, but Art is unaware of that.

Each chapter begins with a statistic, like the "odds of getting sick on vacation 1 in 9", and each statistic relates to the chapter. In this one, Marion gets food poisoning. It's a clever way to tie everything into the gambling theme.

This is basically a two-person story, and as I was reading it, I thought it would make a good stage play. We spend much of time getting to know this couple, and the insight into each character is revealing, like this passage of Art describing himself:
"If, as he liked to think, his greatest strength was a patient, indomitable hope, his one great shortcoming was a refusal to accept and therefore have any shot at changing his fate."
Marion says of herself:
"What had she done with her life? For a moment she couldn't think of anything. Become a wife and a mother. A lover, briefly, badly. Made a home, worked, saved, traveled. All with him. For him, because of him, despite him. From the start, because she was just a girl then, she'd thought they were soul mates, that it made them special, better than other couples they knew. She'd learned her lesson. She swore she'd never be fooled again, not by anyone, and yet she's fought for him as if he were hers, and then, having won, didn't know what to do with him."
That passage just blew me away. I found the writing to be concise, and so profound. Marion and Art each take chapters sharing their thoughts and moving the story along. The overwhelming tone of the novel is sadness, with Art hoping that his gamble can make this last trip together something memorable, that he can be a hero, and they can regain the intimacy they lost.

Marion does not appear to want to reignite their marriage, she sees this as one last reluctant fling. She is an unhappy woman, and the only time she shows any sign of joy is when they get drunk at a Heart concert, reliving her youth.

The one nitpicky thing that bothered me about this book is the character names. Art and Marion are about the same age as me, but their names make them sound like they are 70 years old. I don't know anyone my age named Art or Marion. I wonder if the author intentionally did that?

Their literal gambling to win enough money to save themselves is a metaphor for the gamble they are taking on their marriage. Can they win at either? Anyone who has been married may see themselves in certain parts of this book. It is an insightful look at a marriage in crisis, and the writing is so brilliant, you'll feel like you are eavesdropping on this couple.

rating 4 of 5

1 comment:

  1. Good point about the names Art and Marion - I never thought about that!