Stewart O’Nan: The Odds (2012)

The Odds

Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Odds is the second novel of my 20 Under 200 project. It’s the third of O’Nan’s novels I’ve read so far and while Last Night at the Lobster is still my favourite, I thought this was very well done.

The Odds tells the story of a middle-aged couple, who spends Valentines Weekend at an expensive hotel in Niagara Falls. They are broke, about to lose their beloved house, and ready to file for bankruptcy. Their marriage has been crumbling for years and after this weekend they will get a divorce. Basically, because they hope to hide assets. The interesting element, the element that generates tension in this novel, is that the reader knows from the beginning this weekend means different things for the characters. Marion considers this a weekend of goodbye. The divorce will bring her freedom. Art, on the other hand, considers this to be a new beginning. He’ll ask his wife to marry him again. Unsurprisingly, the book is full of double entendre and subtext. Watching the protagonists circle each other, trying to find out if they made the right move – Marion hopes having sex isn’t giving the impression, she’s still in for a new beginning, while Art hopes the flashy diamond ring does really express love and is not just seen as a reckless token – is enthralling.

While these dynamics would be interesting enough to follow, there’s something else ging on here. Niagara Falls was where they spent their honeymoon but it’s also a place where you can gamble. This might have been the most interesting part of the book and it shattered a few of my illusions. How naïve was I to believe that Niagara Falls offered nothing but a spectacular view of one of nature’s most amazing offerings. I’ve been taught, Niagara Falls is a garish, small version of Las Vegas. Flashing lights and casinos included. I honestly don’t get it. Do people really enjoy illuminated sights? In garish colors at that? I remember when I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time in its all-year-round Christmassy illumination – I was disgusted. But this seems even more sacrilegious.

The trip to the casino makes a lot of sense because Art thinks he has figured out how to win big time at the roulette wheel, using the Martingale system. He’s certain that working with the odds will save them.

I found it amusing that Stewart O’Nan used different statistics as titles for his chapters. Odds of a couple making love on Valentine’s Day 1 in 14 – Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17 – Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary: 1 in 6 – Odds of surviving going over the Falls without a barrel: 1 in 1,5000,000. Of course, all these are relevant to the story and made me think of those long chapter titles we find in many 19th century novels that give a flavour of what follows.

While they spend their days queuing for hours to see the many tourist attractions, at night they hit the casinos. If you want to find out whether the odds are against them – you’ll have to read the book.

I found this very well written, very realistic. I particularly liked the way he showed the absurdity of a tourist business that transforms a natural phenomenon into a tawdry theme park. Pretty sad, to be honest. It was equally excellent how he described how two people can have very different feelings about the same thing and that even in a marriage you may very well live with a stranger.

What kept me from loving this was that the people described are very realistic, but not exactly interesting. Since this is the second novel about middle-aged people, written by a man, I wonder whether men’s view of middle age in our society isn’t more negative than women’s view. Often, in novels written by women, the middle-aged protagonist starts a new, freer life. This is to some extent reflected in the attitude of the two protagonist. While Art thinks it would be a catastrophe if they spilt, it means freedom for Marion.

After finishing this book I’ve asked myself two questions:

What are the odds that I’ll visit Niagara Falls: 1 in 10,000

What are the odds I’ll pick up another Stewart O’Nan novel? 1:1

Maybe The Odds isn’t Stewart O’Nan’s best novel but it’s still well worth reading.

I first read about The Odds on Guy’s blog here.