Ocean State by Stewart O'Nan: A review

 

The setting of Ocean State is the small working-class town of Ashaway, Rhode Island. The narrator is named Marie and she takes us back to the autumn of 2009 when her older sister Angel killed a girl named Birdy. 

This isn't a murder mystery then. There is no mystery because we know from the very first paragraph of the book what happened.

Angel and Birdy had been in love with the same teenage boy. Or at least with all the intense single-mindedness of teenagehood, they thought they were in love. Angel's solution to this "love" triangle was to knock off one of its sides. 

Angel's and Marie's mom, Carol, struggles to raise her two girls and to encourage them to make lives for themselves somewhere away from Ashaway. She just wants to get them through high school and to help them as much as she can with college. Her dreams did not work out and that has left her with the feeling that their lives are a matter of chance and are basically beyond their control. Things are bound to go awry even if they do everything right. 

And then of course things do go badly awry when her older daughter commits murder.

Stewart O'Nan tells his story through the alternating perspectives of these four women. Thus, we spend time with and get to know both the victim and the murderer. But we also get to know the murderer's mother and get some sense of where she came from. And we see it all through the eyes of the murderer's younger sister who loved, admired, and perhaps envied her beautiful older sister. None of these perspectives that we are privy to are without their biases.

It's interesting that the teenage boy who is at the center of all this drama, Myles, is largely ignored. And yet he was an accomplice with Angel in the murder of Birdy and he was arrested, convicted, and served time for it. Was he the manipulator or the manipulated in the commission of the crime? Was he thrilled with the knowledge that he was the object of desire for two girls? What happened to him after he served his time? O'Nan doesn't give us a clue. One gets the feeling that he wasn't very interested in Myles.

As for our narrator, Marie, her sister's crime disrupted her life as well and she seems to have been something of a Sad Sack as a child and teenager. How could she have been otherwise, given the circumstances? Her telling of the story is presented as a way to get all of that out of her system and perhaps move on with her life. As the most sympathetic character in the story, the reader can hope that that worked for her.

The book is short, less than 300 pages, and it makes for propulsive reading. I was hooked from the first paragraph and found the book hard to put down. O'Nan does a good job of detailing the life in this small town and the characters are all interesting and well-drawn. One could hardly ask more of a writer.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


Comments

  1. Wow. What a plot! And getting to see the story from so many POVs would make it even better. I've never read any of O'Nan's books, but I like the sound of this one. :)

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    1. He has an impressive number of books published over the years since the '90s but this is the only one of his that I have read. Based on this experience, I'd say he is a very talented writer.

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  2. Stewart O'Nan is as reliable a writer as Anne Tyler; I know what I'm getting and I always get it. O'Nan takes a look at the seamier side of life, people who live on the edge of disaster. My favorite is Last Night at the Lobster.

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    1. I'm looking forward to reading more of his books.

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  3. I didn't realize this one was a propulsive read. I had seen a few other reviews that were all over the place but it seems like you really liked it. I will put it back on my radar.

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    1. Well, I found it propulsive. It pulled me right in and I had to keep going to find out what happened.

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  4. I don't often come across a plot like this... I really wanna read it.

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    1. It was a very creative idea for a plot and was well executed.

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