Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan

In this unforgettable novel–disturbing, gorgeously written and poignant–working-class women and girls are pushed to extremes.

“When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl. She was in love, my mother said, like it was an excuse.” So opens Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan (West of Sunset; City of Secrets; The Odds: A Love Story). If this were a murder mystery, the killer’s identity is immediately known. But it’s not the crime itself that occupies the novel’s spotlight so much as the challenges faced by its four central characters.

They are four women, closely connected but very different. Angel is a popular high school student. Carol, her mother, is a nurse and stressed-out single mother, a bit preoccupied by her dating woes. Marie is Angel’s younger sister, forever watching other people’s lives as if they were movies and waiting for hers to begin. Birdy is Angel’s classmate. They both want the same boy, a rich kid who inevitably will leave their small town behind. Angel is his girlfriend of three years, Birdy his secret. The way these lives converge will change all of them forever. O’Nan presents the four women’s perspectives in turn, so that readers watch them build and crescendo to a violent crime and then tumble through its aftermath. The events are horrifying, and not only in terms of that final violence, the writing is lovely, glimmering. O’Nan evokes Ocean State‘s setting, the blue-collar Rhode Island town of Ashaway, with equal care: perhaps unbeautiful, but rendered with detail and tenderness.

O’Nan’s greatest accomplishment is in the compassionate portrayal of characters who are each guilty of smaller and larger wrongs, but whose motivations, concerns and battles always feel of real concern. Marie desperately wants to connect, with anyone. Carol wants the best for her daughters but can scarcely keep her head above water. Birdy has strong family ties but has succumbed to a dangerous infatuation. Angel is gripped by a version of love that contains a large dose of possessive rage. Interestingly, the boy that these girls focus on does not have his perspective revealed; readers meet him only as Birdy and Angel see him.

Because of how the book begins, readers always see the crime coming. Somehow, this does not reduce the suspense, as tension builds toward the unavoidable climax. Ocean State is a compelling, propulsive read: easy to inhale but difficult in some ways to stomach. This is a story less about love than about obsession and family connections and disconnections, and about the devastations of hardscrabble lives. The ugly turns beautiful in O’Nan’s scintillating prose, and his four main characters will linger with readers long after their stories end.

This review originally ran in the January 21, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 coffee cabinets.

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