January 19, 2012


The Odds: A Love Story. By Stewart O’Nan. Viking. $25.95.

The Mighty Miss Malone. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     Young and adult readers alike would like to believe that love, in some form, conquers all forms of adversity – in fact, that is why so many authors deliver feel-good novels in which difficult people and difficult circumstances turn out, in the end, pretty much all right, through the conquering power of love. Cynics (and, some would say, realists) will deem books of this sort simpleminded and quite unrealistic; but their target audiences will find their very lack of reality to be a big part of their charm. And so it is in Stewart O’Nan’s The Odds, a bittersweet (but mostly sweet) story of a couple with serious financial and marital troubles blowing everything on roulette bets during a second honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Marion and Art Fowler have been married for 30 years and are a low point in life, jobless and about to lose their home to foreclosure. Their marriage isn’t in great shape, either, which is scarcely a surprise. Because this is not the real world, the Fowlers take all their savings, book the bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino, and sightsee by day while gambling at night. Each chapter is headed by odds of some sort: “Odds of being killed in a bus accident: 1 in 436,212,” or “Odds of vomiting on vacation: 1 in 6,” or “Odds of a married couple making love on a given night: 1 in 5.” The story takes place around and on Valentine’s Day – one of many obvious plot manipulations that make the fairy-tale atmosphere clear – and follows Marion and Art as they think about where their finances went off track and where their marriage derailed. The writing is colorless: “He knew better than to try to live on credit, especially at his age, but money was cheap. The interest rate was nothing compared to the penalty they’d pay for breaking into their IRAs early.” The ups and downs of the Fowlers’ life parallel the ups and downs of their desperate attempt to restore themselves financially and emotionally at Niagara Falls (“Odds of surviving going over the Falls without a barrel: 1 in 1,500,000”). Despite the uplifting ending, it will be hard for thoughtful readers to ignore a comment made in passing on the book’s final page: “‘It doesn’t change anything.’” But thoughtfulness is scarcely the point here – the idea is to ignore one’s head and follow one’s heart.

     For younger readers, ages 9-12, matters of love frequently involve whole families rather than just two people. In the case of Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone, the Malone family of Gary, Indiana, actually has a motto, and of course a highly optimistic one, about being “on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” But things are scarcely wonderful during the Great Depression, a harder time than the modern one in which O’Nan’s book is set. Curtis introduced 12-year-old Deza, the protagonist, in Bud, Not Buddy, and fans of Bud Caldwell will enjoy this tale of the “mighty” girl as well. Deza is the smartest girl in her class, and dreams of going to college to become a teacher. But her father cannot find work in Gary, and the family must pick up and move to Michigan – the father first, then the rest of the family (Deza, her mother and her older brother, Jimmie) afterwards. Jimmie actually finds a job: he has a beautiful voice and is able to get work as a singer in the Chicago area. That leaves Deza and her mother in a Hooverville near Flint, determined to find Mr. Malone and reunite the family. This is a story that has “heartwarming” written all over it, with its period detail and saga of unending determination to keep a family together carrying a strong if straightforward message. The times portrayed here will be remote for the readers at whom the book is targeted, and the personalities of characters other than Deza herself are not very well fleshed out. But Deza’s caring and intelligence come through effectively, and her attempts to cope with economic pain and the anxiety of separation, to learn from what happens to her and stay anchored through her love of family, are well expressed, with the result that the final scene of reconciliation and hope will leave at least some readers with a lump in the throat.

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