Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

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Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: An understated novella giving a slice of American working class life. Perfect for fans of moody, atmospheric films artistically shot in black and white.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: March 2017
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1760293864

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The Red Lobster seafood restaurant chain is closing some of its poorly-performing branches just before Christmas. Amid the Christmas lights, office parties and forced jollity Manny DeLeon, the manager of one of these failing outlets, has to keep it all together for one last day. Short-handed, with most of the staff who've bothered to turn up facing unemployment, he tries to make the best of a bad job, all the while knowing this will be the last day he'll spend with the waitress he shouldn't still be in love with, particularly not now he's about to be a dad. Oh, and there's a blizzard on the way.

Last Night at the Lobster was first released in 2007 in the USA so the outlook isn't as bleak as perhaps it would have been had it been written post-2008 financial crash. As it's more of a long novella than a short novel there isn't much in the way of sub-plots or complexity. What there is, however, is one keenly-observed day in the life of an American chain restaurant, with the menu, the stock phrases, the layout and the special offers dictated by a distant and impersonal head office. Seen through Manny's eyes you get a good sense of the different characters and motivations of the staff he's in charge of, and the surprises and disappointments he gets from them throughout the day. Some of its appeal for me possibly comes from the unexpected exoticism of the American everyday – many things from the Frialators and bus tubs in the kitchen and the Regals and Caprices outside, to the biscuits and tilapia on the menu, by way of Manny's recently-deceased abuelita, are unfamiliar to me.

The book is rich in detail and the slow pace and relentless snow makes it atmospheric, I can imagine it as a moody film shot in black and white. The atmosphere is heightened by Manny's need for it to mean something, to be poignant because it's the last day, to say proper goodbyes to the staff. Through the day Manny's focus is on the near at hand, what to put on the evening specials board, how to tackle the snow in the car park, what to buy his girlfriend for Christmas this lunchtime. That way he can shy away from the bigger questions of love, commitment, and where his life is going.

I think it succeeds at what O'Nan appears to be trying to do, which is to shine a light on the lives of an often-overlooked slice of society. Within the book the waitresses are often ignored or taken for granted by the customers and I get the sense that this book is an attempt to humanise the many thousands of shop workers, bar staff etc that (it is to be assumed) the average reader of weighty intellectual novels fails to notice much in daily life. As with Steinbeck in the 1930s highlighting America's working class, so Stewart O'Nan has done more recently, and occasionally with shades of Steinbeck's image-laden prose.

There are plenty more Stewart O'Nan books to go at, but if you'd like a British version Gwendoline Riley does a nice line in moody, detailed, nothing much happens to ordinary people. Her debut was Cold Water back in 2002.

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Buy Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan at


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