Stewart O’Nan, “Ocean State”

Just a guess here, but that title says it all—Ocean State isn’t about Rhode Island. At least, not only Rhode Island. Ocean State is the national waters in which we swim. It’s a world of casual violence. It’s a world where teenagers killing each other is routine. It’s a world where mass shootings are a blip on the news. It’s a world where violence is a ready option. Ocean State is our ecosystem. We have grown numb to the fact that we are drowning. In violence.

Ocean State lays its cards on the table with the opening line: “When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl.” And even that’s casual. A toss-off. The second line is: “She was in love, my mother said, like it was an excuse.”  Who could stop reading?

Marie is the younger of two sisters. Angel is older. We’re in Ashaway, a few miles from the coast. This town is struggling. The mill that used to serve as the town’s economic engine is shuttered. It was called The Line & Twine. (A quick Google search reveals a spate of these; many beautiful old stone buildings now sitting idle.) It’s 2009—right after the crash. The sisters sneak through a hole in the fence that tries to keep trespassers away from the abandoned mill and they practice roller-skating on the floors around the dusty looms. When it comes to the killing, O’Nan takes full advantage with a detail from the industry’s detritus. Now the girls’ mother Carol works as a nurse’s aide at an old folks’ home. Struggle oozes up from the pages. This world moves on Taco Bell and the Liquor Depot. A misprinted ad about a discount on Snickers is not taken lightly.

Carol and her daughters are on the edge. Marie wants to be with her older sister, who is a popular kid in high school. The Marie-Angel relationship gives Ocean State the flavor of a psychological thriller. Together, the sisters track their mother’s poor decisions, sex life, and dodgy relationships. There is relatively rich kid named Myles who is at the center of the love-triangle. “She has no plans to win him beyond offering herself,” thinks Birdy. “She’ll break up with Hector and let him know, and then whatever happens, happens.” Yearning on every page.


“My mother’s boyfriends tried to be sweet, but they were strangers. Sometimes they paid our rent and sometimes we split it. When they broke up with my mother—suddenly, drunkenly, their shouting jerking us from sleep—we would have to move again. Like her, we were always rooting for things to workout, far beyond where we should have. Our father was gone, and our mother couldn’t stop wanting to be in love. Quote I swear this is the last time,” she’d say, dead sober, and a month later she bring home another loser They seem to be getting younger and scruffier, which Angel thought was a bad sign.”

O’Nan’s smooth, effortless energy on the page kept me rapt. We see this world through rotating perspectives—Marie, Angel, Birdy, and Carol. (Who said men can’t write across gender, let alone inside the world of three main teenage characters?). There is social media, sex, and the kind of relentless focus on internal, immediate needs.  


“She’s always thought of herself as honest, not perfect but good at heart, and the ease with which she’s become this new, reckless Birdy is confusing, as if someone or something else has taken control of her. It’s a kind of possession, a power greater than herself that at once exalts and leaves her helpless. It’s not worth losing Hector over, yet here she is, already lost herself. Sometimes she doesn’t care. Sometimes she wants to be nothing. The desire scares her, like her desire for Myles, at once baffling and all consuming.”

The main conflict isn’t a secret, as should already be clear. We learn early on that Angel will kill Birdy. Help kill. We know from that second sentence it’s over love. But we flip the pages looking for the moment when Angel will be pushed over the edge. O’Nan takes us up close to the first humiliation, the first attack, the counterpunch. And then Birdy is cornered. The dread rattles our bones. But teenagers? Could they? (Have you read the news lately?) We don’t know the whole plan but the next day Birdy is missing and soon there are police and warrants and searches. When we last see Birdy alive, however, there are still 70 pages left in this brisk novel—nearly a third of the story.

And the remorse? The collective town contrition, in a village where everyone knows everybody? We are told early on that Birdy is from Hopkinton, “a totally different clique.” And so. Shrug. That issue over the candy bar discount was a bigger deal.

Except for, maybe, Marie. She remembers, at least, but we don’t really get the sense she mourns Birdy. We know Marie is smart, observant, self-reflective. And maybe a touch self-loathing. Possessive too? From a distance, looking back as an adult, Marie sees all. The ending is one of those that juicy ambiguous finishes that could launch a thousand heated book club discussions. Good. It makes you want to start over immediately and consider Ocean State from a whole new perspective, as much psychological study as it is a fine, taut, and terribly human thriller.


Previously reviewed:

West of Sunset

City of Secrets

The Odds

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