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In Stewart O’Nan’s 13th novel, “The Odds,” the protagonists are a middle-aged couple, Art and Marion Fowler, in the 30th year of a marriage stressed to the breaking point by infidelity and financial troubles. They have both lost their jobs and been living on credit cards while trying to keep up appearances with their grown children. They managed to weather the adulterous affairs of 20 years before, but economic stress has just about brought them to the end of their marriage. The house is about to go into foreclosure, and they have decided, for economic reasons if no other, to file for divorce before they file for bankruptcy.
As one last attempt to stave off the inevitable, Art and Marion have decided to leave their Cleveland suburb and take a Valentine’s weekend trip to Niagara Falls, where they spent their honeymoon 30 years before. Having nothing to lose, they intend to bet their savings at the casino. As Art and Marion observe and reminisce, the reader senses that deep down they still love each other – or at least are comfortable with one another. Marion is determined to start a new life away from Art. Art, on the other hand, has decided to court his wife on this romantic get-away and do all the romantic things he feels he has neglected over the years.
Stewart O’Nan brings his characters to life and allows the reader to see the marriage from both sides. As each chapter begins he gives a set of odds, for instance, “the odds of a U.S. tourist visiting Niagara Falls: 1 in 195.” Art and Marion are out to beat the odds. After all, they have already beaten the odds of reaching their 25th anniversary; those odds were 1 in 6.
In this short novel, the author writes about the perceptions and memories husband and wife share about life, marriage and love. Mr. O’Nan observes how familiar habits of 30 years break down while keeping the reader wondering what will happen between Arthur and Marion.
The author’s tone is compassionate even when Art converts their liquidated assets to chips he will use to place a bet that might – against the odds – allow them to keep their home and perhaps even save their marriage. Each recalls, as they spend this last weekend together, that their happiest and saddest times in their lives have been together.