The first Stewart O’Nan book I read was Last Night at the Lobster and I don’t remember why I read it. It’s not the kind of book that is going to immediately pull you in from the jacket copy. My best guess is that it was on the New Books shelf at the library, which is where I used to find most of my books.
Last Night at the Lobster has the kind of plot you could find either mundane or epic, depending on how you look at it. The Red Lobster is closing. Its staff must muddle through its final hours, knowing they’re about to lose their jobs. Not much of a pick-me-up. Sounds like just another day. But at the same time, for its characters, everything that happens is playing out on a heightened scale. Maybe one Red Lobster doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things, but for these people it is their livelihood. And what higher stakes do you need?
What drew me in to the book right away was the smooth quality of O’Nan’s writing. I found myself slipping into the story without realizing it. What kept me in the book was his characters. There is something so tangible about the people he creates even if the universe they inhabit is small.
The Odds is my third O’Nan book (and a reminder that I really should read more). Like many of his novels, this one has the same small scope. It follows Arthur and Marion, a middle-aged couple, on a trip to Niagara Falls. They say it’s a second honeymoon, but they both seem to know it’s the last time they’ll spend together before they end their marriage.
I understand if you think that sounds dismal. But this is where you have to trust Stewart O’Nan. He will make heartbreaking stories as involving as the tightest thriller. I read The Odds in the middle of a streak of thrillers and easy reading. It was my little reward for some of my tougher reading during the year. And I was surprised to find myself as sucked in to The Odds as I was to any of the books that began with gruesome deaths and shocking discoveries.
The book goes back and forth between Arthur and Marion, letting you see this marriage from both sides. You can see all the misunderstood gestures and words, just as you can see their closeness. In that way it reminded me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which follows a just-married couple as their relationship collapses on their wedding night. The two would go well together, both portraits of a marriage, one old and one new, and both with the kind of hold-your-breath suspense as you wonder what will happen to these people.
Still, while O’Nan keeps you on your toes, wondering what will happen between Arthur and Marion, he keeps it very real. There are dinners where not much is said. Marion gets sick. They go sightseeing where they confront long lines and uncomfortable crowds. It isn’t that much different from the trips you’ve probably been on.
Stewart O’Nan turns the mundane into the sublime and I wish I could tell you how he does it. The smallest act or word seems to draw Arthur and Marion closer together or farther apart. And it is, as its subtitle states, a love story. Just not the one you may be used to.
When I try to think about who I’d recommend this book to, I’m having trouble limiting the pool. His writing is fantastic without being show-offy or self-indulgent. His characters are people you can understand. His stories are often sad but never false. That’s the kind of book I think everyone wants to read.
Thanks to Netgalley and The Penguin Group for providing me with an e-galley of this book. The Odds will be released on Tuesday, January 19th.