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.

20 thoughts on “Stewart O’Nan: The Odds (2012)

  1. Thanks for the mention, Caroline.
    It’s interesting that you say: “Often, in novels written by women, the middle-aged protagonist starts a new, freer life.” I recently read somewhere that divorces in the 50+ (or perhaps 55+) age group has seen a tremendous increase, and that was an age group in which divorces were relatively low. I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she has seen this in her practice and she said, “yes.” She said she sees a lot of women who are fed up with their husbands and don’t want a retirement with a TV addicted couch potato, and that they want a different sort of life. That goes with your observations.

    BTW I started 1864. Slow going so far at one hour in, and the main characters are still in their idealized (unrealistic) childhoods.

    • You’re welcome. It was strange that I read two books, one after the other in which 50+ men had such a sad outlook on life and think I’ve noticed that before while the older female protagonsist seem so much more joyful.
      I also read about these divorce statistics and that it’s mostly women filing for a divorce. Imagine – being around some like that day in, day out and both not working.
      Sounds like 1864 is a true epic. Maybe it will get better. Let me know.

  2. Great review Caroline.

    The book sounds like an intriguing character and relationship study. The plot does sound dark. I am fascinating by stories of decline, even though they can be very depressing.Such stories do illuminate an important part of life for some.

    On a side note I am often in the Niagara Falls area on business. It is kind of sleazy. the natural wonder of the fall is impressive beyond belief, however.

    • Thanks, Brian.

      The book is very realistic and it has depressing elements but O’Nan ultimately likes his characters. You should try him some day if you haven’t read him yet.
      I’m glad to hear the beauty of the falls is still visible.

  3. Wonderful review. Yes, unfortunately the falls offers two experiences. I live within two or three hours from it and never visited because I want to hold on to the spectacular idea I have of it and not see the reality (though nearly all my friends and relatives have been there). O’Nan describes this so well, exposes it so well. I love this critique of the book!

    • Thanks, Jolene. I’m glad you liked it. Yes, he captures it very well and I’m glad I’ve read this. I think I would have been so incredibly disappointed going there without a warning. It’s sad that soe many of these wonderful sights are perverted like this. If I would live closer, I might go anyway because it must be so majestic.

  4. I went to see Niagara Falls in April several years ago. The timing had two advantages: there weren’t hoards of tourists yet and the ice floats added to the spectacular scenery. We looked at the falls and then left, and I think it was the perfect way to visit without being disappointed. With that being said, I think I’ll try out Last Night at the Lobster first.

    • Good to know there’s a time when you can actually enjoy the falls. I loved Last Night at the Lobster. I hope you’ll like it too. I would love to know wjhat you think of it.

  5. Caroline, I didn’t know that about Niagara Falls either. I have heard that the Canadian side is nicer, but don’t know if they have casinos there. It’s a national park on the U.S. side, so the casinos must be some distance from the actual falls.
    This book sounds too close to home for me, so I will try Last Night at the Lobster.

    • I was wondering whether you’d visited. The bad news is – the book is set on the Canadian side so there are casinos there as well.
      Maybe, the US side is less tawdry.
      I hope you’ll enjoy Last Night at the Lobster.

  6. Wonderful review, Caroline. I love the fact that the title of each chapter starts by giving the odds for a particular thing happening and the chapter addresses that in some way. I loved your odds for reading a Stewart O’Nan novel again 🙂 Sorry to know that you didn’t love the novel, though glad to know that you liked it. I loved the fact that the two main characters look at the same happening through totally different eyes. I have never read a Stewart O’Nan book before. I want to try reading one now. Which one would you recommend that I read first?

    • Thanks, Vishy. I thought those chapter titles were really fun. It’s very well written but I didn’t entirely warm to the characters. So far my favourite is still Last Night at the Lobster. It’s quite short. I think you’d like it. I’m only not sure whether it’s still available, I looked on amazon and it seems out of print. I’ve got another one here that I haven’t read yet Wish You Were Here. It had amazing reviews at the time. I just don’t feel like its fair recommending something I haven’t read yet. Snow Angel was very good too but my memory is a bit blurred. If you can find a copy – Last Night at the LObster would be the bets place to start.

  7. Heheh Enjoyed your calculations of various odds at the end of your post! FWIW, I think it’s revealing that the author chose to have his characters visit the city and see only this side of it. Yes, of course, it certainly exists, but the fact that they chose to stay in an expensive hotel and to gamble suggests that this might have been the side which most interested them at this stage of their life together.

    But, even so, there is a very beautiful side to the region as well, with many extensive trail systems and overlooks through the NIagara Glen, all of which can be accessed by foot from the falls (although, yes, it’s true, one can simply take another turn and head to Clifton Hill, which, mind you, I think is quite wonderful in its own way — but neither picturesque nor beautiful. But fascinating? Definitely! These two characters don’t seem like they’re in the mood for a quaint B&B with a view of the riverway however; they seem like perfect candidates for the seemingly-overwhelming grit and consumption that the tourism industry encourages in the city.

    Although I’ve never lived there, I’ve visited/stayed there a couple dozen times throughout my life, and it remains one of my favourite places, partly because of its interesting contradictions. I’m still interested in reading the novel, BTW, but I’m glad to know that the mood isn’t exactly uplifting.

    • I’m so grateful for your input. I see that his description – which works very well for the novel – is one dimensional. Seems like I have to change one part of the odds at the end. 🙂
      The way you write about it makes me want to go. I can see how the contrast might be interesting. For me, it sounded a lot like Las Vegas and I would never visit Las Vegas.
      I’d be interested to hear waht you think of it.

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