I won The Odds by Stewart O’Nan from the First Reads program over at Goodreads.com. It’s O’Nan’s 13th novel, due to be released on January 19, 2012. Luck was definitely on my side as The Odds has placed in my top 5 books of 2011. I cannot wait to read more of O’Nan’s stories.
Art and Marion Fowler are a middle-aged Cleveland couple hanging by a thread. During their 27 years of marriage they’ve weathered raising two children, secret (and not-so-secret) affairs, and the everyday wear and tear of time. Jobless and on the brink of financial ruin, they decide to embark upon one last all-or-nothing weekend at a casino on Niagara Falls.
Reviews of books you love are always hard. I don’t want to gush all over the place, but this little novella is stunning. It reminded me of a much less flowery and very succinct Ian McEwan novel (no worries, Ian, I still love you). The Odds is not a book you read for plot, but rather a book you study for superb characterization and frank honesty. The Fowlers are not happy people; they are struggling just to breathe. Art has worked for 20 years to make his wife happy and prove his love after an ill-advised affair. Marion has stubbornly held on to the hurt of Art’s affair, but seems much more deeply affected by her own secret dalliance and the possibility that she never truly loved Art in the first place. O’Nan creates such a tangibly tense atmosphere as we follow the couple on all aspects of their sight-seeing adventures – from blistered feet and stomach viruses to drunken Heart concerts and Jacuzzi tubs. And just when you want to hate Art, or Marion, or both of them – you realize you can’t because O’Nan has perfectly painted the people who live next door, the people you call family or friends, the couple you see fighting or laughing in the mall – he’s created the very people we see, somewhat murkily, staring back at us in the mirror. That’s what makes this novel so compelling and yet so wrought with third-party embarrassment and the inability to look away. We know that at any moment we could become, that we already are, the Fowlers.
I’m not going to ruin the end for you although I really want to. It involves a roulette game and the willingness to bet their entire life savings (not to mention their house and their marriage) on the spin of a wheel. And while you don’t know if they lose all of their money until the very final page of the book, you soon realize it doesn’t matter because somewhere along the way O’Nan’s genius managed to convince you of whether or not they win at the biggest gamble of all – the game of life.
So pick it up in January and let me know what you think! Despite my flattery, the book isn’t perfect (for instance, there’s no way fifty-somethings drink that much and have almost no signs of hangover the next day) and I know some of you will probably hate it – but that’s what makes reading so much fun and garners the best discussion.