Stewart O’Nan’s Ocean State is the story of a murder, the sort of ugly thing that makes the headlines: Angel and Birdy, two teenage girls in Rhode Island, are involved with the same boy: Myles. Angel and Myles have been an item for a while, but Myles strays with Birdy which leads to a tragic outcome. Framing the murder are the lives of Angel’s sister, 13-year-old Marie and her single mother, Carol. Carol has a bad history with men, and her two daughters, Angel and Marie have long identified relationship patterns that remain oblivious to Carol.
Carol and her daughters lead a tenuous poverty-stricken existence in an Ashaway, Rhode Island duplex, and according to Marie:
My mother’s talent was finding new boyfriends and new places for us to live.
Ashaway is a small community, and everyone seems to know everyone else. Birdy lives in Hopkinton, and both girls come from a working-class, hardscrabble family. Myles, however, comes from an affluent family, and college is in his future. There’s the implication that Birdy and Angel compete for Myles partly because of his status. He represents all they will never have. Carol’s life of a succession of loser men may have contributed to the murder of Birdy–perhaps Carol’s failures reinforce Angel’s violent need to kill her rival. Marie’s first person narrative reveals a great deal about the impermanence of her mother’s relationships:
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 work out, far beyond where we should have. Our father was gone, and our mother couldn’t stop wanting to be in love. “I swear this is the last time,” she’d say, dead sober, and a month later she’d bring home another loser. They seemed to be getting younger and scruffier, which Angel thought was a bad sign.
The novel passes between first person and third person narrative. Myles, a central figure, remains a murky character, and it’s unclear why he participated in the murder. Even though we know on the first page that a murder has occurred and that Angel “helped kill another girl,” the story is slow to start. About 3/4 of this sad, depressing book is the lead-up to the crime and then the rest is the fallout. In spite of the serious topic, with characters set on a collision path that will end in murder, the story is not compelling, and it’s unclear what point the novel is trying to make. Interestingly, Marie, who seems to be the most sensitive one here, is the one most damaged by the crime. This was a senseless crime, and that senselessness stains the novel too.