Stewart O'Nan's new novel is a funny, touching portrait of a marriage on the brink | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Stewart O'Nan's new novel is a funny, touching portrait of a marriage on the brink

A bankrupt couple travels to Niagara Falls in the comic novel The Odds: A Love Story.


Stewart O'Nan is a novelist of the everyday. He's the kind of writer who, in his 2011 novel Emily, Alone, found poetry in the daily habits of a finicky Highland Park widow.

The Pittsburgh-based novelist's latest, The Odds: A Love Story (Viking) also concerns people you might run into at Target. But this time, O'Nan packs his granular observations about domestic life into a smart, fast-paced romantic-comedy format.

Call it Bonnie and Clyde meets the old Albert Brooks film Lost in America. We meet Art and Marion Fower en route to a Valentine's Day trip to Niagara Falls. Three decades earlier, they honeymooned there. Now they're not only preparing to divorce, they're unemployed and broke — coupon-clippers from Ohio who went a quarter-million dollars underwater during the housing crisis. The trip is buttoned-down Art's nutty casino scheme to both recoup the losses at the roulette table (he has a system!) and salvage their marriage.

The story of a few days is told as a series of third-person monologues alternating between the spouses' points of view. Art is the romantic and sentimentalist, Marion more hard-eyed, chilled by regret over the lost years, lost innocence. Each has had an affair — Marion's still a secret, Art's the cause of their near-breakup years earlier. O'Nan describes Marion thinking:

She swore she'd never be fooled again, not by anyone, and yet she'd fought for him as if he were hers, and then, having won, didn't know what to do with him. Still didn't. That was her fault, she freely admitted it, but after all, wasn't the whole world held together by inertia?

What's portrayed especially well, even in the farcical circumstances, is the everyday negotiations, internal and interpersonal, governing the spouses' lives: their calculations of what to say when, and how. Marion's willingness to allow Art his little moments of nerdy tourist happiness, even though she's convinced their marriage is sunk, are touching. O'Nan knows these characters inside and out.

This is a funny book, too, its 179 pages brisk, each chapter keynoted by a wry "odds" epigram. ("Odds of surviving going over the Falls in a barrel: 1 in 3.") O'Nan even grants his characters (and readers) that the cheap magic of a tourist trap like Niagara Falls can be magic, nonetheless.

Eclipse at Carnegie Science Center
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Eclipse at Carnegie Science Center

By Mars Johnson