February 2012

A marriage goes all in

By Stewart O'Nan
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Stewart O’Nan (Emily, Alone) has packed a huge amount of emotion into this slim novel. In less than 200 pages, he manages to examine the whole history of a marriage—complete with excess baggage, lingering resentments, equal amounts of frustration and fondness. The Odds takes place over a single weekend—Valentine’s Day weekend—when Art and Marion head to Niagara Falls for what is ostensibly a second honeymoon. The truth is that this trip is the couple’s last resort. What their friends and grown children don’t know is that Art and Marion are on the verge, simultaneously, of bankruptcy and divorce. Their plan is to risk all the cash they have left in one big blowout gambling weekend, before they finally admit defeat and attempt to start from scratch.

In concise chapters that begin with a relevant statistic (“Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17”) and alternate between Marion’s and Art’s points of view, we discover exactly how this entirely non-extravagant couple arrived in their unhappy situation. Timely without being even slightly dry, the novel looks at today’s brutal economy through a lens that’s entirely focused on the personal and emotional consequences.

O’Nan is adept at describing the way certain personality characteristics (competitiveness, shyness, optimism) combined with certain circumstances (unemployment, a house in need of repair) can end up pitting two people against each other despite their mutual affection. The arguments and resentments that Art and Marion have seem so realistic because they’re baffling for both parties; neither spouse particularly wants to fight. Both are often confused as to how and why an argument started. And they each cling to old guilt and old grudges they know they should abandon but can’t quite let go, even when they genuinely wish they could. The story isn’t as grim as that may sound—O’Nan laces his harsh truths with plenty of humor, and even his sort of brittle, difficult characters are endearing. He also never abandons the possibility that things will work out. The Odds is a painful but well-executed portrait of ordinary human weakness and its aftermath.

Read an interview with Stewart O'Nan for The Odds.

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The Odds

The Odds

By Stewart O'Nan
ISBN 9780670023165

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