Frontier Psychiatrist

Love is a Gamble: A Review of Stewart O’Nan, The Odds

Posted on: August 29, 2012

Stewart O'Nan, The Odds

Stewart O’Nan, The Odds

The odds of a marriage proposal being accepted are 1 in 1.001, i.e. nearly perfect. The odds of a married couple making love on any given night are 1 in 5. The odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary are 1 in 6. Such stark, if not totally surprising, probabilities provide both the chapter headings and the thematic glue of Stewart O’Nan’s sharp and sad new novel, a love story wrapped in a heist wrapped in a rumination on risk, reward, and regret.

In less than 20 years, O’Nan has written 13 novels, including Snow Angels, which became a 2007 movie starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. His four nonfiction books include a manual on writing co-edited with John Gardner, whose The Art of Fiction is a Bible on the MFA circuit. His papers are already archived at Cornell University’s library. In other words, he’s a workhorse and a writer’s writer, and in The Odds, he makes the art of fiction seem effortless.

In some ways, The Odds might have been written any time in the last 50 years. O’Nan continues the tradition of American authors who chronicle the marital problems of middle-class white people: John Updike, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, and Amy Bloom. Yet The Odds also has contemporary touches: the 50-year old woman addicted to Facebook, the baby boomers who text at a concert, and, most important to the plot, the recent financial crisis and recession that push the characters to the brink of ruin.

At 179 pages, The Odds is a tightly plotted book with unity of time, place, and action.  The 33-word first sentence establishes the characters, the conflict, the stakes, the setting, the style, a ticking clock for urgency, and the formal, yet gut-wrenching tone:

The final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and stupidly, half secretly, in the never-distant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country, North, to Canada.

The only key fact missing is that the Fowlers are going to Niagara Falls. Also, it’s Valentine’s Day. And it’s their 30th wedding anniversary. Like many short stories and many novels, O’Nan bets all his big chips on The Big Day. And it pays off.

While The Odds is mostly grim, O’Nan lightens the mood with the Fowlers’ banter, a couple of fart jokes, and some of the chapter headings, which reminded me a bit of the dietary diary headings in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Apparently, the odds of a jazz band playing “My Funny Valentine” on Valentine’s Day are 1 in 1, the same as the classic rock band Heart playing ”Crazy on You” in concert (Both occur in the book). And the chance of the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series is 1 in 250,000. That stat is an inside joke: O’Nan is a Boston Red Sox fan who co-wrote a book with Steven King about the team. Check the standings, guys.

If The Odds has one weakness, it’s the flip side of its strength. The plot is so airtight, the conflicts so explicit, the symbolism so clear, there’s little ambiguity or weirdness or surprise. Like Woody Allen in some recent films (Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona), O’Nan has written more of a fable than a piece of realism.

Then again, fiction usually has more coincidences, sharper symbols, and clearer shape than reality. And in both life and literature the most basic truths are often the most profound. Late in the novel, Marion muses about her husband: “The happiest she’d ever been was with him, and the saddest. Was that the true test of love?” Throughout, The Odds follows Anton Chekhov’s famous injunction that a story’s center of gravity should be two people: He and She. (Or She and Him [sic] if you’re M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel).  What’s true for the Fowlers is true for everyone: Love is a gamble, you’ve got to bet big, and you’ve got to be in it to win it.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His FP book reviews include Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale, Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am An Executioner, and Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA. He likes to gamble, but not in casinos.

 

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1 Response to "Love is a Gamble: A Review of Stewart O’Nan, The Odds"

[…] Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recently reviews include Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Odds and Frank Ocean’s album Channel Orange. He needs more sleep. Share […]

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