Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, “Ocean State,” released on March 15, begins at the end: “When I was in eighth grade, my sister helped kill another girl.”
Told through the alternating third-person perspectives of three women—Angel, the murderer, Carol, her mother and Birdy, the victim—the story that unfolds reveals what led to a high school girl's murder in the working-class town of Ashaway, Rhode Island.
Marie, Angel’s sister, narrates the story in retrospect and reflects on what went wrong in the fall of 2009.
Angel and Birdy are in love with the same boy: Myles, a rich kid whose only talent is strumming on his guitar. He is the least developed character in the novel, but with what little O’Nan reveals about him, it is clear that he is not worth the effort. To Birdy, though, who cheats on her boyfriend and tells dozens of lies to her mom, Myles is worth everything. Angel’s willing to (and does) kill for him. It is this love triangle that propels the novel forward, as Angel and Birdy's love spirals into an obsession that turns deadly.
Although in the background of it all, Marie—narrating through the first-person point of view—serves as the locus of the novel. Existing in her older sister’s shadow, Marie knows things that others do not; the burner phone Angel keeps in her shoe, her unexplained tank of nitrous oxide, where their mother hides the alcohol. It is through her eyes that the reader begins to understand more about the complex lives of the characters and the nature of the crime.
Despite the novel beginning with the murder, “Ocean State” was for the most part a gripping read. The relationships between the characters—Angel and Marie, Carol and her daughters and Birdy and her mother—are complicated, and because of this, feel authentic.
O’Nan’s unflinching portrayal of the twisted effects of jealousy is engrossing and makes the story feel that much more intimate.
Considering the shock of the first line, I expected there to be a bit more tension in the novel. Halfway through, however, it all fizzled away, as the chapters leading up to the actual murder felt disorienting. I appreciated the subtle, sharp details (Birdy’s dog is named “Ofelia”) and the attention given to the character’s internal struggles, but I wish there was more focus on the main event of the novel—the murder itself.
“Ocean State” is a meditation on the unyielding nature of love and the ugly things it can make us desire. I would recommend this novel and give it three out of five stars.