The Odds': spinning the wheel of marriage
Stewart O'Nan's novel "The Odds: A Love Story" tells the story of the Fowlers, a couple who take a trip to Niagara Falls as their marriage teeters on the brink. O'Nan reads Monday at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
Stewart O'NanThe author of "The Odds: A Love Story" will read at 7 p.m. Monday at the Seattle Public Library's Central Branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
Art and Marion Fowler, middle-class Clevelanders, are on the verge of divorce. Nonetheless, they seem pretty friendly toward each other, and they're spending a Valentine's Day weekend in the honeymoon suite of a Niagara Falls hotel. Plus, they've got a big wad of cash. What's going on?
As Bill Clinton reminded us: It's the economy, stupid.
Unemployed, with their house about to go into foreclosure, desperate Art and Marion have hit on a plan. They'll divorce for two reasons: tax purposes and the missing spark in their marriage. (Among other things, the kids are grown and gone, and there are also gradually revealed hints about past indiscretions on both sides.)
The Fowlers also decide to bet the last of their meager savings at a roulette table on the Canadian side of Niagara. If the gamble works, they'll salvage their finances and, maybe, their marriage. If not, they'll declare bankruptcy and go their separate ways.
That's the setup for Stewart O'Nan's slim but powerful 13th novel, "The Odds: A Love Story" (Viking, 179 pp., $25.95).
O'Nan is a prolific and versatile writer. He's written short stories, screenplays and nonfiction (notably "The Circus Fire," about a devastating arson in 1944). And, with Stephen King — like O'Nan a devoted Boston Red Sox fanboy — he co-authored "Faithful," an account of that team's amazing 2004 season.
But it's as a novelist that O'Nan really shines. He's produced everything from historical tales ("A Prayer for the Dying") to jittery noir ("The Speed Queen") and bittersweet snapshots of contemporary life ("Last Night at the Lobster"), all at a consistently high level. Running through this body of work is O'Nan's tender knack for bringing to life his flawed, sometimes honest and sometimes self-deluding, always intriguing characters.
The author deftly captures Art and Marion's genuine (if mixed) emotions. These heartfelt portraits contrast sharply with those of their tacky surroundings: the cheesy tourist traps, the artificially cheerful hotel room, the casino's weirdly clock-free ambience. There are also cannily observed scenes of the casual affection and familiarity in long-term marriages, as well as unexpected surprises, like when Marion gets wild and crazy during a Heart concert.
Throughout, the couple's moments of happiness (such as a giddy sharing of champagne) stand out against those moments when everything seems to go wrong (like the fancy meal that ends in humiliating food poisoning).
"The Odds" has its moments of mawkishness — at one point O'Nan belabors the metaphor linking Niagara's overwhelming power with Marion's sense that she's helplessly being swept away. And then there's the book's subtitle, which telegraphs the story's direction and robs it of some of its tension.
But such moments are rare, and for virtually the entire book, O'Nan is in firm but understated control of his material. And the novel's conclusion — when Art and Marion, all dressed up, bet everything they've got — is thrilling. After all, as that subtitle hints, the Fowlers are gambling on much more than a spin of the wheel.
Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month
in The Seattle Times.