The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan
In one slim chapter, eight and a half pages long, this accomplished novelist describes the unraveling of one family's American Dream in the financial crisis that was strangling the country as George Bush the younger left the White House. All the chapters in this little book are named after odds; this one is called “Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17.” For Art Fowler, and, apparently, one in seventeen others, the elements of a perfect storm collide, as his easy success and comfortable suburban life with grown kids and a slightly boring marriage run into greedy banks, low borrowing rates, and corrupt mortgage regulators, as well as his own hubris, denial, and unfounded optimism. Add in an extra-marital affair, and a wimpy inability to accept his own failure, and what do you get? A trip to Niagara Falls, of course, in a last-ditch effort to save the house and the marriage by gambling everything he's still got at the casino.
Look, I didn't think I'd be interested in a suburban marriage-mortgage story either. But this is witty and pithy, and full of a) insights into marital dynamics, b) unexpected plot flips right up to the final moments, and c) absurdities that one can easily imagine happening in real life. On the verge of divorcing Art, Marion Fowler accompanies him on a road trip to the honeymoon-capital-of-the-world instead, because, well, “She was tired of moping around the house, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Maybe Art had the right idea—why pretend anymore? If they were going down, they might as well do it in style.” Indeed, in the chapter titled, “Odds of a black number coming up in roulette: 1 in 2.06,” she goes all in. “Yet instead of terrifying, their recklessness was weirdly exhilarating, like the fights they'd waged over [his mistress], elemental, all pretense of normal life abolished, the false past gone, the future uncertain.”
This is a fast read with lots of contemporary relevance, but what I enjoyed most was watching these two staid middle-aged people discover the devil-may-care attitude at their core.