We all know the divorce rate is high in the U.S., and odds are only 1 in 6 for a married couple making it to their 25th wedding anniversary. It seems that marriage is a risky proposition these days, maybe even a gamble. The always amazing Stewart O'Nan plays with that metaphor in his latest short novel, THE ODDS. It chronicles what is to be the last weekend of Art and Marion Fowler’s marriage --- a trip to Niagara Falls to try to win enough money to save themselves from total financial bankruptcy. And just maybe save their marriage.
"With THE ODDS, O'Nan proves himself again a master of the ordinary and capable of elevating the mundane to magical prose. This is a smart, sensitive and sharp novel, impeccably written and totally enjoyable."
Having both lost their jobs, with credit card debt looming and children who no longer rely on them, Art and Marion's already lackluster marriage is in dire straits. The ghost of an affair 20 years ago (and one more recent) haunts them both, and they are at once emotionally awkward and totally comfortable with each other. Art plans the trip to Niagara Falls to try out the Martingale gambling method. He thinks he can win enough to bail them out financially, but deep down he is really hoping for one last chance to keep Marion. The couple goes sightseeing for fancy dinners and even attends a rock concert. They swing between moments of anxiety, annoyance and quiet passion. Even as Marion prepares herself for life without Art, she cannot seem to pull away from him completely. And Art, romantic and tenderhearted, is desperate to show his love, even if his methods are ones sure to push Marion farther away.
Niagara Falls works as the perfect backdrop: quietly schmaltzy, cold and liminal, full of happy couples, the possibility of happiness and the threat of danger. And the Martingale method is the perfect analogy for a successful marriage: double your bets when you are losing and keep doing what you’re doing when you’re ahead. O'Nan brilliantly captures the tensions between payoff and debt, risk and reward, love and complacency, contentment and fear. Marion realizes that “the happiest she'd ever been was with him, and the saddest.” She wonders, “Was that the true test of love?”
Emotionally rich and descriptive but succinct and carefully written, THE ODDS is stylistically reminiscent of O'Nan's other fabulous short novel, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER. It is a bittersweet and honest domestic story that is a counterbalance to the fraught and cynical (but equally amazing) mega-novels of Jonathan Franzen. Not because everything turns out okay, but because O'Nan suggests that being okay is a temporary reality and not a pathology.
With THE ODDS, O'Nan proves himself again a master of the ordinary and capable of elevating the mundane to magical prose. This is a smart, sensitive and sharp novel, impeccably written and totally enjoyable.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 26, 2012