Tag Archives: stewart o’nan

THE ODDS by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan is a master at taking everyday life, with its myriad daily victories and losses, and exploring the human drama and meaning behind them. Like he did in Last Night at the Lobster (reviewed here), in The Odds, he takes a look at an everyday marriage of two middle-aged people over the course of two days, and charts the ups and downs of this Cleveland couple on the verge of splitting up.

Art and Marion have come upon hard times. Their mortgage is too much for them to cover; they have both lost their jobs to the recession. There is infidelity lingering in the history of their relationship, and they have decided, most likely, to separate, just as they must also sell their house and face their financial ruin. They opt to take a last-ditch nostalgia trip to Niagara Falls, both to revisit the scene of their much happier honeymoon, and to bet what little remains of their savings at the casino in a Hail Mary attempt to recoup losses. Desperation abounds.

O’Nan takes his readers through the three days of Art and Marion’s weekend, from the disastrous bus to New York to the stomach flu that each of them suffers. There are a million heartbreaks, disappointments, and glimmers of hope between them over the course of the weekend, and O’Nan’s careful observations and eye for detail in The Odds bring the reader along for all of them. Art is eternally hopeful, indulging Marion throughout the weekend (and even presenting her with a ring he can’t afford), while Marion is tired and jaded, defensive and impatient. Should she stay with him, or should she jettison the whole disaster and try being on her own? She wonders, “You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole, like the world, or the person you loved.”

The Odds is a pretty depressing book, like Last Night at the Lobster, but O’Nan clearly wants these people to be happy, so the reader does too. You find yourself rooting for the marriage, and for the roulette spin, because if they don’t win, then what chance do the rest of us have?

Another great book from Stewart O’Nan (and a short read, too). Here’s another review of The Odds from Ti at Book Chatter.


Why are books about disappearing high school kids so popular of late? I just read the third of a disappearing-kid-trifecta, Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, which follows Goldengrove by Francine Prose (reviewed here) and The Local News by Miriam Gershow (reviewed here).

Onan This is the second book I’ve read by O’Nan, the first being Last Night at the Lobster. It is about the impact of the disappearance of 18 year-old Kim Larsen on her her parents and sister, Fran, Ed and Lindsay Larsen, a typical Midwestern family living near Erie, Ohio. It’s not a mystery novel – O’Nan’s goal isn’t to solve the puzzle of what happened to Kim, but is instead a painstaking depiction of the days, months, and years that follow the disappearance of a beloved child.

Just like in Last Night at the Lobster, O’Nan writes in detailed, almost encyclopedic prose. No observation is too minor for his careful eye. This works both to the benefit and the detriment of the novel. O’Nan is extremely gifted at achieving realism – in all of its mundane and plodding glory – by recreating a scene or exploring a character’s inner thoughts with precision and understatement. The benefit of this style is that the book is unflinchinlgy honest about the swings between hope and despair that Kim’s parents experience in the tortuously slow days and months after she disappears. O’Nan shifts perspective throughout the book, which further highlights the impact that each member of the family has on the others’ grieving process.

The detriment of all the detail is that for the reader, there are no literary cues to signify when something important was about to happen. Often, when an author slows down the pace of prose, it’s a sign to pay attention. With Songs for the Missing, that’s the whole book. And yet, there were important points having to do with Kim’s disappearance, details her friends knew, that O’Nan alluded to through only shadowy mentions. The result is that there are mundane passages told in extraordinary, arguably unnecessary detail, and important ones told in tiny flashes of vague allusion.

I listened to Songs for the Missing on audio. The narrator – Emily Janice Card – reads with precision and dispassion, the way O’Nan writes. Sometimes I found her narration of the voices – particularly those of Fran and Ed – to be too lighthearted and casual for parents who had just lost a child. I kept putting myself in their shoes and finding their tone of voice a little unrealistic.

Songs for the Missing was similar to Goldengrove in its understatement and quiet devastation. The Local News, on the other hand, was darker and grittier and, in my opinion, a more satisfying read. But I am glad I read Songs for the Missing, and will probably read more by Stewart O’Nan.


A few months ago, I wrote about a book called Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan. I just finished it. It’s a short, dense book about the snowy last evening of a Red Lobster restaurant in New Britain, CT, a restaurant whose corporate owners have deemed it worthy of closing due to low revenues.

The story follows Manny, the manager of the restaurant, as he sets about trying to make “the Lobster”‘s last night if not profitable, then at least dignified. Yet he’s short-staffed, the mall where the restaurant is located is being blanketed by a blizzard, and Manny has to deal with such challenges as a disgruntled employee throwing a rock through his windshield and a liquor-poaching bartender.

This is a compelling book. O’Nan covers in painstaking detail the process of running a middlebrow suburban chain restaurant, yet does so with an honesty and dignity (that word again) that one rarely comes across in “literary fiction”. The Washington Post put it well: “Full of regret and gentle humor, Last Night at the Lobster serves up the kind of delicate sadness that too often gets ruined by the slimy superiority that masquerades as sympathy for working-class people.”

I also read Then We Came To The End recently. In some ways, these books are similar: both explore the lives of doomed twenty-first century rank employees with insecure positions in downsizing industries. I liked Lobster much better, though. Its straightforward, spare prose transports the reader into the lives of these people, this restaurant, with an intimacy that feels welcoming rather than voyeuristic or mocking. When a busload of senior citizens appears late into the dinner hour, yet turns out only to need to use the restaurant’s restrooms, I shared Manny’s acute disappointment without feeling sorry for him.

The minor characters are much less sharply drawn than Manny, even Jacqui, the waitress with whom he had an affair months before. Yet the tragedy of their relationship and his stubborn, unfailing hope that she might change her mind, might accompany him to a neighboring Olive Garden where he’s taken an assistant manager job, are heartbreaking.

This book covers about fourteen hours – from Manny’s opening joint before opening the restaurant to his final flip of the lights at midnight. These characters are not transformed or even particularly redeemed by the end. But Manny in particular will linger with me long after I’ve finished this book, nor will I ever view a chain restaurant quite the same. In my opinion, O’Nan has made a significant contribution to the collection of books chronicling the modern American worker.


Here’s a book I am very eager to read: Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan. It’s the story of the last night at a Connecticut Red Lobster restaurant that’s going to close the next day.

EW put it on its 10 Best for 2007:

OnanAnother generous novel about work, this one set during a blizzard at a languishing Red Lobster restaurant in New England on its final day of operation. For the very last time, Manny DeLeon, Stewart O’Nan’s grave hero, negotiates between his bickering waitstaff, tends to the Frialators, banters with a longtime customer, and pushes the tilapia. Without quite admitting it to himself, he is mourning the dissolution of this strange little community, however makeshift and dreary. And why shouldn’t he? O’Nan turns everyday loss into poetry.

Scott Writes blog said this about the book:

Sure, it sounds pretty simple, but there’s so much below the surface of that basic plot description. O’Nan has a knack for writing some of the most thoroughly enriching portraits of small-town life you’re likely to find on bookshelves these days. Behind the last-night-at-their-job proceedings, there’s a deeply felt nostalgia and remorse for what’s become a staple in these characters’ lives. O’Nan plays it perfectly.

And from The Washington Post:

Full of regret and gentle humor, Last Night at the Lobster serves up the kind of delicate sadness that too often gets ruined by the slimy superiority that masquerades as sympathy for working-class people. It wouldn’t take much longer to read this story than to polish off a large helping of hush puppies, but it’s a far more nutritious meal.

Must. Read. ASAP.