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'The Odds' Stacked Against A Struggling Couple

Love is a gamble. So, for that matter, is writing. What are the odds that Stewart O'Nan, oracle of the ordinary and maven of the middle class, will strike a chord with readers in his 13th novel? Given his track record, which includes Last Night at the Lobster, a poignant tale of a soon-to-be-disenfranchised chain restaurant manager, and Emily, Alone, a moving portrait of a widow soldiering on: high. Factor in the subject of The Odds — a last-ditch effort to save a marriage and avoid bankruptcy by staking everything on a Valentine's Day weekend at Niagara Falls — and the odds are elevated to excellent. Of course, in both life and literature, sure bets are rare. If this slim novel doesn't deliver quite the massive payout we anticipate, chalk it up to overly high expectations and some unfortunate patches of mundane prose.

Here's the situation: After nearly 30 years of marriage, Art and Marion Fowler head from their over-mortgaged, soon-to-be-foreclosed-upon home outside Cleveland up to Niagara Falls, the site of their honeymoon, for one last blowout. Both financially and emotionally, they are in dire straits. At 52, they've lost their jobs and haven't had a single nibble on their house. Their marriage has never recovered from Art's steamy affair with a younger colleague 20 years ago, and Marion is still troubled by her own infidelity with a woman from work. His gambit is to bet everything they have left. If they win, they can avert disaster. If they lose, they'll declare bankruptcy and file for divorce. Art, "on a mission to recapture, by one dashing, reckless gesture, everything they'd lost," views the divorce ploy as "a legal formality, a convenient shelter" for any remaining assets. Marion goes along with his plan, but she's actually looking forward to starting fresh, on her own.

As the couple drags through the tacky tourist attractions by day before landing at the glitzy, late-night, high-stakes roulette tables, O'Nan nimbly captures both Art and Marion's perspectives and the private jokes and simmering tensions of a long marriage. He nails the couple's "ballet of accommodation" in the tight hotel room, as well as their dressing rituals, including Art's repeatedly being asked to weigh in on outfits while realizing Marion will invariably go with her own choice. Art, though a romantic and dreamer at heart, is inherently deliberate, a planner and strategist. Marion holds the injured party's upper hand in the relationship. His desperation not to ruffle her feathers and to win her back is touching but a bit puzzling: Is this a new campaign, or has it been going on since she triumphed over his mistress decades earlier but "then, having won, didn't know what to do with him"?

Stewart O'Nan is the author of 13 books including <em>Emily, Alone</em>. He lives in Pittsburgh.
Trudy O'Nan / Courtesy Penguin Group
Courtesy Penguin Group
Stewart O'Nan is the author of 13 books including Emily, Alone. He lives in Pittsburgh.

Occasionally, O'Nan lapses into truisms, as in Marion's drunken realization that, "You couldn't relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole — like the world, or the person you loved." Several lines jarringly — and bafflingly — point to an outcome that appears to be at odds with the book's ending.

Still, there's plenty to enjoy, including the wry, oblique commentary setting off each chapter: "Odds of vomiting on vacation: 1 in 6"; "Odds of a couple making love on Valentine's Day: 1 in 1.4"; "Odds of the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series: 1 in 25,000." O'Nan, writing about love in a time of recession and hope as eternal as falling water, celebrates in The Odds "the high not of money but of sheer possibility" — a wager few can resist.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.