Last Night at the Lobster

Many times, when looking for something new to read, I’ve been given suggestions that didn’t quite work for me. Reading is a sweet escape, precious time spent building a brief, but close relationship between the characters and myself. If I can’t find at least one character to root for, early on, I quickly move on to the next book. I'm happy to say that I found a likeable character in the form of Manny DeLeon, restaurant manager in Stewart O’Nan’s short fiction novel, Last Night at the Lobster.

American author Stewart O’Nan was recommended to me by my brother. I’ve been reading a lot of "chick lit" lately, and wanted something new. O’Nan was described to me as kind of an “everyman’s author”. I did a little research on O’Nan’s writing style and found that he’s known for writing about harsh realities, rust-belt realism, mortality. From Motoko Rich, in an interview with Mr. O’Nan for the New York Times, “He has written thrillers, horror and historical fiction, and followed a novel of postmodern irony with straightforward realist fiction. "No two consecutive books that I have worked on have been alike,” said Mr. O’Nan."

Although Halloween is quickly approaching, I wasn’t in the mood for thrillers, horror or death, so as I read through descriptions of O’Nan’s work I was quickly intrigued by Last Night at the Lobster.

“Lobster” was inspired by a local newspaper article about people who showed up at a Red Lobster in Torrington, Conn., after church one Sunday, only to discover that it had closed without notice. “That little article made me think it was this loss of a little world and I just started daydreaming about it,” Mr. O’Nan said. He then started to interview employees and researched Red Lobster life extensively for the book, and the details are stunning. Anyone who has dined at this restaurant will feel like they're right back there in the booth!

Basically, this book is about the closing of a Red Lobster restaurant, located adjacent to a New England mall. With Christmas just four days away, and a blizzard swirling around them, it’s the last day of business, but customers have no idea that this is the case. Manny DeLeon, the restaurant’s manager is trying to get through this last day with a positive attitude and some dignity. Aside from doing his best to keep his varied customers happy, there are tensions between staff members, which are not going away even though the restaurant is, sadness over a failed love affair, and the general loss of the “family” and lifestyle Manny has become comfortable with for the past several years, to deal with. Although the book was published in 2007, the loss of a job and a way of life is, unfortunately, quite relatable to many today.

From the publisher, Penguin Random House, about the book:

“A frank and funny yet emotionally resonant tale set within a vivid work day world–named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Entertainment Weekly.

A Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, the Red Lobster hasn’t been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift–just four days before Christmas and in the midst of a fierce blizzard–with a near-mutinous staff and the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he’s wondering how to handle the waitress he’s still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend, and where to find the present that will make everything better.

Stewart O’Nan has been called “the bard of the working class,” and Last Night at the Lobster is a poignant yet redemptive look at what a man does when he discovers that his best might not be good enough.”

The following reviews piqued my interest even more:

“A deeply moving novel about how we work, how we live, and how we get to the next day with our spirits intact. If there was ever a book that embodies what’s best in us, it’s Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster.” –Stephen King

“[O’Nan’s] vivid portrait of the Lobster ultimately conveys, somewhat miraculously, the warmth and comfort the restaurant provides Manny. . . . O’Nan’s empathy for his characters is one of his greatest gifts as a novelist, and it is an impressive achievement that Manny’s misplaced affection for Red Lobster is not risible, but tragic.” –The New York Times Book Review

“A masterful portrait. . . . The scope and emotional range of this poignant story are surprisingly narrow, as though O’Nan locked himself in a narrative box, tied one hand behind his back and then dared himself to make it engaging. The fact that he pulls it off is a testament to his precision and empathy.” –The Washington Post Book World

“In prose as wondrously spare as the lives of the characters, O’Nan exposes their pathos, a stripped-down fragility made all the more poignant by their fledgling efforts at resilience. These are dutiful characters, with modest dreams and deep humility, yet with a persistent, almost instinctive fortitude that enables them to get up each morning and try again.” –The Boston Globe

I agree with another reader, who said they were sad that the story came to an end. I like Manny, though like all of us, he is not without his flaws, and I want to know how the rest of his life turns out. Knowing his character, you can speculate as to how Manny's life story might play out, but, thanks to O’Nan’s relatable writing, I found Manny interesting enough to wish for a follow-up novel. Last Night at the Lobster is a beautifully written, heartfelt "everyman" story and I’d recommend you give it a read.

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