These two splendid new works of fiction have enough in common that they must be reviewed together, even at the risk of underplaying their strengths in the name of journalistic trend-mongering.
The facts are that Jane McCafferty and Stewart O'Nan live in Pittsburgh and their books have just been released, days apart, by big-shot New York publishers.
Both works dissect the lives of middle-aged, middle-class white people whose marriages have taken midlife nosedives. But before your nostrils start flaring with irritation, rest assured that neither writer goes navel-gazing. Each has pulled off an admirable feat: literary fiction that results in reading pleasure, not twisted brains, with precise prose and strong narratives that earn your attention.
First things first about "First You Try Everything": Not only is the story set in Pittsburgh, with characters bopping into Penn Mac, Tazza D'Oro and Pamela's, but our city suffuses the story.
Within the first pages, Evvie Muldoone -- the wounded partner in this severed marriage -- declares why it's tough "just to handle the life in front of her. ... She didn't have stories she could translate to people outside of Pittsburgh. The city was its own universe, somehow. It wrapped around a person's mind, especially in winter ..."
Ben -- the stolid, fed-up husband -- is less of a booster. "He'd grown up in Erie, and these days felt tired of Western Pennsylvania," while Evvie, a Philadelphian, "loved Pittsburgh the way the natives did."
Love is what drives Evvie quirky (and later, mad): Love of animals and their rights, love of pop and indie rock songs (the novel's soundtrack would cost a fortune in copyrights), love for the Indian clerk Ranjeev at a Highland Park convenience store, love of her Giant Eagle worker/brother who lives in the attic of their Morningside abode -- and, most of all, love for Ben, her former comrade in bohemian arms.
Ben now tests and sells medical equipment, "a decent salaried job, and he found himself enjoying the way it felt to glide down the street in a coat and tie." He also enjoys the way it feels to be around Lauren, a divorced mom who cooks a perfect rosemary chicken and always knows where her keys are, unlike Evvie, a scatterbrained vegetarian "who'd not been able to conceive a child despite years of trying."
After Ben ruptures the marriage, the dumbfounded Evvie goes into a downward spiral. But Ms. McCafferty maintains complete control, alternating points of view between the two parties with empathy and aplomb. Glowing with natural humor, she takes exquisite side trips to earnest peace marches or children's modern dance performances where the audience is in a "collective parental stupor." The hair-raising scheme that Evvie undertakes to win back Ben does seem far-fetched, but as the story develops in Ms. McCafferty's warm, steady voice, you stay enchanted to the bitter end.
The characters in Stewart O'Nan's "The Odds" are also engaged in a high-risk scheme. It keeps you on the edge of your seat through the 179 pages of this brisk, pungent journey into a marriage afflicted by the 21st century.
Art and Marion Fowler hail from Cleveland (not now-hip Pittsburgh). They travel by bus on a "Valentine's Getaway Special" to Niagara Falls, Canada, where they had honeymooned nearly 30 years ago. Both are unemployed; main breadwinner Art, 52, lost his job at Ohio Life, an insurance firm obliterated in the great recession's buzzsaw. Their kids are grown, but the house has been on the market a year "without a nibble." Art sees no choice but to lose the house, go bankrupt, divorce and move on.
But first: A last-ditch effort to multiply their remaining cash in a Niagara high-roller casino, based on math-major Art's study of the Martingale method. Just as important, Art wants to live large one last weekend, paying homage to their marriage -- laid low by his lengthy affair with the hottie Wendy Daigle. (Marion's dalliance, with a Karen, seems to be a secret shared with the reader, not Art.)
Mr. O'Nan masterfully plumbs the inner lives of a longtime couple -- shared jokes, gastrointestinal intimacies, perfunctory lovemaking that elevates with a tequila assist. With his taut, accomplished storytelling, the tension over Art's make-or-break strategy builds to a gripping crescendo.
One essential footnote: Both novels have minor characters named Celia, who appear only by phone or email. What are the odds of that?
John Allison : email@example.com , 412-263-1915