Valentine's Day in the bridal suite at the ritziest casino at Niagara Falls — romantic, right?
It might not be that simple if you're Art and Marion Fowler, there on the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary. It's hardly a happy second honeymoon: In their early 50s, they've lost their jobs, they're about to lose their underwater house, their empty-nest marriage is floundering, and tucked in a gym bag is their last liquid $40,000, fuel for Art's scheme to save their finances and, he hopes, their love.
In The Odds: A Love Story, Stewart O'Nan deals out the Fowlers' story of quiet desperation, creeping disappointment and abiding affection that just might win the day — whether it ought to or not.
This sharply observed novella is reminiscent of O'Nan's bestselling Last Night at the Lobster in its exploration of the impact of economic hardship on human relationships. Here he focuses even more tightly on just two people, on what happens to an ordinary marriage in hard times.
And Art and Marion are ordinary. One of O'Nan's gifts is writing about people whose lives are not extraordinary, exotic or unusual, yet revealing their unique inner selves. In The Odds, his third-person narration slips effortlessly between Art's and Marion's points of view, sometimes from one sentence to another — a technique that emphasizes the gaps between them and, sometimes, how little they understand each other, even after three decades.
Hearing Art singing in the shower in their posh hotel room, Marion thinks, "They were seeing Heart tonight, a band he mistakenly thought she'd liked when she was a teenager, because he'd liked them as a teenager. As he did the solos, ridiculously impersonating the various instruments, she lay there listening, clicker in her lap, not understanding how he could be that oblivious, and that happy, both of which, she thought, were at least partly her fault."
How the pair came to this pass is all too familiar. Their financial mess is the national story. First they bought the house that pushed the boundaries of their credit, as Art recalls: "He knew the house was out of their range when she first e-mailed him the listing. He only went along to the showing to make her happy, and then, after seeing the high ceilings and the tile fireplaces, she wanted it. . . . The strength of her desire surprised him. He wanted to fulfill it, as if, out of gratitude, she might transfer that ardor to him."
Then the downturn comes, and they lose their jobs (his in insurance, hers in health care). Stunned into a kind of inertia, they remain true to their own personalities: She goes through the motions while withdrawing emotionally — "She thought her impersonation of a supportive wife was more successful. It fooled even herself." — while he cooks up one more desperate plot to make her happy.
It's what he has always done, with one glaring exception. Both Art and Marion are haunted by an affair — a very ordinary affair, of course, a younger woman met through work — he had 20 years before. Marion is still holding a grudge, although she alone knows about her own affair, also with a younger woman.
Art is a pleaser, but he's also a planner, and he has intensely researched a gambling method that he believes will let them double their money. In other ways he throws caution to the wind — the honeymoon suite, lavish meals and a new engagement ring for Marion are all on the American Express card. But the betting, he insists, must go according to plan.
The other part of the plan, the one they're not talking about out loud: getting a divorce to stave off financial ruin. He sees it merely as a useful sham; she sees it as a road to freedom.
O'Nan follows the Fowlers through their three-night excursion to Niagara Falls, heading each chapter with a sly factoid about probability:
Odds of getting sick on vacation: 1 in 9
Odds of a couple fighting on Valentine's Day: 1 in 5
Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17
Odds of surviving going over the Falls in a barrel: 1 in 3
Dry wit infuses the story elsewhere, too, as in Art's observation when Marion turns away from him while changing her bra: "Perhaps it was familiarity, but he thought her back one of her best features." The middle of the book is an uproarious evening the two spend drinking, dining, drinking, going to that Heart concert, smoking dope that seems to have gotten much stronger than they remember, drinking some more — I started getting woozy just reading it.
O'Nan vividly evokes Niagara Falls' jarring juxtapositions — astonishing natural beauty and old-school tacky tourism — as well as the surreal, mazelike nature of casinos, designed to cut players off from everything in the outside world, even the time of day. Inside that suffocating, sealed environment, the Fowlers' marriage will reach a breaking point. Will Art find the courage to carry out his plan? Will Marion find the faith to back him? The domestic drama of The Odds pays off with insight and suspense right down to the last spin of the roulette wheel.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.