After 30 years of marriage, the middle-class couple that is the subject of Stewart O’Nan’s The Odds: A Love Story (Viking, 179 pages) has little to show for the life they have made together. Art and Marion Fowler are among the losers in the “whole new economy” of the Obama years. Both have lost their jobs—she in health care, he in insurance. During the housing bubble, they took out a second mortgage, but now they can’t make the payments and they can’t sell their house: It has been on the market for more than a year without a nibble. “They would lose it, had already lost it, honestly,” O’Nan writes. “The question was, how much would it cost them?”
On their last weekend together before filing for divorce, they head to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where they can gamble their last remaining dollars at European roulette. Art is “on a mission to recapture, by one dashing, reckless gesture, everything they’d lost.” Marion just wants to get through the weekend and return home to Cleveland to file the paperwork. She is not in love with her husband anymore. The way O’Nan tells it, she is not even particularly fond of him. Although Art blames himself for their financial reversals (“his latest failure seemed an indictment of him, the timid underachiever”), Marion assumes that he blames the world out of “a sense of entitlement and a selective paranoia.” Art must lobby Marion for sex; she finds him too eager, too needy. After all these years, he has never got used to her rebuffs. She tells him to “stop with the poo-poo face.” He gazes appreciatively at her early-morning nudity or evening-wear décolletage. She shakes her head: “His timing had always been terrible.” She asks him to stop staring.
O’Nan’s 13th novel in 15 years, The Odds advances a deeply unsettling vision of human experience for such a little book. At the head of each chapter, O’Nan supplies the odds in favor of various events: “Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary,” for example, are 1 in 6, and the “odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy” are 1 in 17. The cumulative effect, after 26 chapter headings, is to call into question any necessary connection between events. Human lives are episodic, without the significance of tragedy or the redemption of comedy. Marion reflects:
What had she done with her life? For a moment she couldn’t think of anything. Become a wife and a mother. A lover, briefly, badly. Made a home, worked, saved, traveled. All with him. For him, because of him, despite him. From the start, because she was just a girl then, she’d thought they were soul mates, that it made them special, better than the other couples they knew. She’d learned her lesson. 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?
In the end, Art and Marion triumph against the odds. He gambles according to the “Martingale method” of doubling when he loses and betting the same amount when he wins. Although the system is no better than any other at predicting the random bounces of a roulette ball, Art plays $25,000 on black after losing five times in a row on red. If they win by following his system, perhaps Marion will believe in him again, “and maybe he could too.” But in a world held together by inertia—not by belief or by moral effort—their triumph is likely to be brief and meaningless, and even if they enjoy it, O’Nan’s reader cannot.
Hilma Wolitzer doesn’t know the odds of a widower’s remarrying, or if she does know, she doesn’t care. An Available Man: A Novel (Ballantine, 285 pages), her ninth novel, is about a 62-year-old widower who gets “another chance” at love, but only after he stirs himself from the episodic clickety-clack of events. Edward Schuyler is a patrician-looking science teacher at a private school in New Jersey. For nearly 20 years he was married to Bee, a Jewish divorcée with two children, with whom he became a “husband, a stepfather, a suburbanite, a mortgagor, a birder, and a commuter”—and never happier. Then Bee died of pancreatic cancer.
Within four months of his wife’s death, Edward begins receiving phone calls from widows who wonder if he’d like some company. His stepchildren try to hurry things along by taking out a personals ad in the New York Review of Books, pitching him as “the real thing for the right woman.” But Edward is not ready for another woman. “The ghost of his marriage still inhabited the house,” he knows, “even if Bee herself was missing.” Surrounded by “the souvenirs of the daily life they’d shared,” Edward is “constantly reminded of what he’d had and lost.”
When he realizes he has not been sexually aroused in more than a year, Edward answers one of the ads. He goes on exactly five dates over the length of the novel. The first offends him by suggesting that homosexuality is a choice; the second cannot stop talking about her dead husband; the third is a 72-year-old sexual athlete with a face-lift and artificially enlarged breasts. His fourth date turns out to be Laurel Arquette, the slender-as-a-schoolgirl French teacher with preternaturally silver hair who jilted him at the altar some three-and-a-half decades earlier, long before he had ever met Bee.
The moment he recognizes her, Edward flees. Laurel does not give up, however. She phones repeatedly, and when he removes himself to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer, she follows him there. Stranded on the island after the last ferry departs, Laurel wheedles an invitation for the night and then sneaks into his bed, where Edward awakens to find himself in ecstatic sexual cahoots with her. Despite his misgivings, he begins to see her regularly when he returns from vacation. He imagines that he is enjoying “the honeymoon he was denied decades ago, only without the wedding, and in Manhattan rather than abroad.” After years of being “famously steadfast, a man of habit who took satisfaction from the quotidian,” Edward is thrilled by the uncertainty of the affair. Laurel is “weirdly possessive and elusive at once.” He holds back from fear of being deserted again and then worries that she will desert him anyway, “because he was so wary of commitment.”
Wolitzer insinuates a psychological diagnosis into the book. Laurel suffers from “borderline personality disorder, with narcissistic pathology.” (Before her illness, Bee worked as a therapist at a community health clinic, and for that matter, Wolitzer herself is married to a psychologist.) Diagnosis leads to the promised end. Laurel rummages in Edward’s birding journal and mistakes an innocent entry for evidence he is involved with another woman. She accuses him of plotting all these years to get even with her. “Laurel, come on, this is madness,” Edward replies, but even as he speaks, he feels a stab of guilt. He does want another woman, a woman he hadn’t even known he wanted until that very moment. “He’d deceived Laurel just as he had deceived himself,” Wolitzer comments. “She was crazy, but she was also right.”
Only then, only when he decides to love again rather than drift with the current of events, does Edward finally become An Available Man. “We’ve both been transformed,” his soon-to-be second wife says, marvelling at how badly they had treated each other upon first meeting. “Restored to our better selves,” Edward suggests. Wolitzer’s novel is nothing major, but—especially in contrast to O’Nan’s—it is a refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.