Last Night at the Lobster
Stewart O'Nan, 2007
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Nothing happens in this book, absolutely nothing—yet it's impossible to put down. I can't figure out how Stewart O'Nan pulls it off, but he surely does.
We follow Manny DeLeon through one entire day as manager of a down-at-the-heels Red Lobster. The place hasn't met its numbers lately, and Manny's corporate bosses have decided to pull the plug. Tonight's the last night. That's the basic plot—but it's a gorgeous read! A hymn to a good and decent man.
There's more—much more. In Manny we see some portion of ourselves: the schlump part of us. He's the guy who shows up, the one who obeys rules and follows procedure—only to get dumped in the end. (The corporation will transfer him to an Olive Garden, but downgraded to assistant manager.) As Manny sees it ...
With every corporate decree he's done his best to lead by example...trying to produce a magical dining experience for his customers. He's done everything they asked, yet there must have been something more, something he missed.
So, yes. Manny loves the Lobster, even though it doesn't love him back. And he's hoping his final night will be a sort of grand finale. Yet everything conspires against him; that's the heart of the story—that and the handful of employees who bother to show up.
Those who do show come, not out of loyalty to the Lobster, but for Manny; his innate decency, kindness, and fairness have gained their affection. And therein lies the power of this book. Snarky and backbiting though they are, Manny has somehow cobbled together a community of workers. We can't help but like and admire their toughness, stoic resignation and, ultimately, their loyalty to one another. They know too well that their fate is not of their own making—the duration and quality of their worklife is determined by others who toil in distant, well-appointed offices.
There is no sentimentality here, no pat resolution: the restaurant isn't saved at the last minute, Manny doesn't get the girl he wants, he has no enlightened "ah-ha!" moment. He simply soldiers on, his affections misplaced in work and love.
What Stewart O'Nan has written is a rich, warm elegy to the worker in all of us. It's a "light" read guaranteed to lead to some heavy discussion for any book club. And one other thing for sure...next time you dine out, you'll wonder about all those folks behind the kitchen door!
See our Reading Guide for Last Night at the Lobster.
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