Three reasons to queue up for Stewart O'Nan's latest fiction, a novella called "The Odds," come immediately to mind.
No. 1: It's set at Niagara Falls.
No. 2: Valentine's Day approaches, and this book would make a very nice gift for the right sort of person.
No. 3: Finally, there's the fact that the Pittsburgh-based O'Nan is a darn good writer, sensitive to detail, sound on the basics of narration and style, gifted at dialogue that feels real and characters that do not come off as caricatures.
"Outside it was night," reads one paragraph about the book's male protagonist, as he sits in a restaurant rotating above the falls, "blackness filling the gaps, flattening the world below to patterns of lights, a schematic view usually glimpsed from an airliner in its final descent. The room had rotated so the Rainbow Bridge was almost beside them, still packed with traffic. He thought of the house, locked and dark, the realtor's sign a public admission in the yard, and wondered if the trip had been a mistake, the plan, everything. They could ride it out another six months if they had to."
The book, which Viking is labeling a "A Love Story" as a subtitle -- and "a compact novel" in press materials -- tells the story of a Cleveland couple that has come to what may be the end of their lengthy marriage.
In the latter stages of middle age, Art and Marion Fowler have lost their jobs and, unable to pay their mortgage or any bills, have listed their fancy suburban home (with its upscale kitchen, an expensive mistake) for sale. Their two grown children no longer live at home. About to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, the Fowlers decide to spend all the money they have left in the world on one last splurge, a getaway for two to Niagara Falls, where they will see the sights, attend a rock concert by Heart and eat some luxurious dinners in fine restaurants.
At least, that's the plan. There is also a side motivation: The Fowlers plan to gamble their remaining bank account at the roulette wheels and see what happens.
Salvation or devastation? It's up to fate -- and luck.
The Fowlers are endearing, sort of. They are also lost, adrift and suddenly facing the world with a new attitude: one in which the outcomes of their actions are not, for the first time in a long time, wholly prescribed.
To O'Nan's credit, Art and Marion seem like people we know. O'Nan does this deftly; he cues up details about their clothes, their mannerisms and foibles, that remind us of -- if not ourselves -- then people in our family circles or among our friends. Art is the more romantic of the pair. He wears khakis and oxford shirts and ties -- leaving for a rock concert, he is described as looking ready for a day of work -- and carries around a diamond ring in a jeweler's box, a gift to Marion from the last of their funds. He can't work up the nerve to give it to her.
Marion is a tougher case. Once free and fun and creative, she has lived so long as a wife and mom and employee that her polish has worn nearly away. She digs at Art for his optimism and his remnants of romance and hope. Her saving grace is that she doesn't think any more highly of herself than she does of him. Here she is, preparing to leave for the Heart show in black pants and a silvery top, in their hotel room:
"I hate what I'm wearing," she said, "but I don't have anything else. Sorry, what you see is what you get."
"You look fine." All he'd changed was his shirt, from a white oxford to a cornflower blue. He could have been going to work.
"What a couple of old farts," she said.
O'Nan, previously the author of novels including "Last Night at the Lobster" and "Emily, Alone," here spins the tale as a suspense story, a will-they-win-or-won't-they? story of adventure and drama. For the most part, it works; the plot hums along at a steady clip, building steam as the narrative builds toward its culmination at a spin of the roulette wheel.
One could easily imagine this in a film version. It's scenic and unfolds in a concise, tidy fashion.
We won't give away the ending, of course. That's half the fun of this book.
Which brings us to the only downbeat note about O'Nan's latest: the size and the price.
A small, hand-sized hardback, the text with generous font size and line spacing stretches more than 179 pages, but is far from a full-length read. It can easily be read in a weekend or a long evening.
And for that reason, the $26 price point seems a bit of a bummer. Not fun, on Valentine's Day.
Charity Vogel is a News reporter and manager of The News' Book Club.
THE ODDS: A LOVE STORY
By Stewart O'Nan
179 pages, $26