Ocean State: A Novel

  • By Stewart O’Nan
  • Grove Press
  • 240 pp.

A story of adult infidelity told, oddly, through the lives of teens.

Ocean State: A Novel

The most unforgettable stories are inexplicable, ones which upon thorough examination still won’t yield easy answers. That’s the kind of story I was looking forward to when I read the opening sentences of Ocean State. “When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl. She was in love, my mother said, like it was an excuse. She didn’t know what she was doing.”

We learn that the victim was Birdy Alves, “petite with big eyes and a heart-shaped face. Like Angel, she was popular, but she was from Hopkinton, a totally different clique.” It’s a bold move to start a novel with something this climactic. Where do you go from here? But Stewart O’Nan is a seasoned writer, and Ocean State is his 20th book.

The story is set in a blue-collar Rhode Island town evocatively described. It’s 2009. Marie and Angel are the daughters of a divorced alcoholic who dates one loser after another:

“When they broke up with my mother — suddenly, drunkenly, their shouting jerking us from sleep — we would have to move again.”

Then their mother, Carol, sees her chance for a better life in “old fat and dressed like a teacher” Russ. Although he’s safe, Marie and Angel hope he’s not the one. They look him up online, but of course he’s too old to have a Facebook profile.

In the second chapter, the point of view shifts. We are now close-in third person with Angel, a volatile high schooler who works at the CVS and has been dating Myles for three years. Next, we get Birdy’s perspective as she nervously prepares to hook up with Myles. They meet in a parking lot and drive to his family’s beach house. “She’d like to believe she’s the first girl he’s brought here, even if it’s not true. So much of love is pretending.”

Only, Birdy isn’t pretending. She’s 17 and emotionally needy. “She only means to kiss him goodbye but they don’t know how to stop. They clutch each other like fighters.” Sometimes, Birdy feels triumphant; other times, she feels guilty for cheating on her boyfriend, Hector, and living a double life.

But Myles, unlike Hector, seems to want more than sex. He wants to take her out to dinner. He greets her with champagne by the fire. They change their schedules to steal free hours together in the middle of the week. O’Nan writes persuasively about the frisson of infidelity and desperate stolen moments, but the characters act more like adults in an extramarital affair than like teenagers. “I’m tired of lying,” Myles tells Birdy. “Then tell her the truth,” she responds.

Meanwhile, Angel’s mother continues dating Russ, who turns out, disappointingly, to live in a retirement community. In one touching scene, Carol stands on the balcony of Russ’ apartment, looking at the stars and imagining another kind of promise:

“She’s been gazing at them her whole life and doesn’t know their names. In the presence of so many, she feels very small and alone in the universe, despite his arms around her.

“‘Listen,’ he whispers, and after a time she can make out the waves, a mile away, falling on the shore as regular as breath.

“‘I hear it.’

“He kisses her neck and she lifts her chin and grips the railing, still watching the stars, unsure what to wish for.”

O’Nan describes the need for passionate connection well, even though he sees it as ultimately destructive. A lot of guilt comes with pleasure for these characters. Marie finds pleasure in food but feels guilty about her gluttony; Carol feels guilty about going to “fancy schmancy” restaurants with Russ while leaving her kids to fend for themselves; Birdy feels guilty for hooking up with Myles behind her boyfriend’s back.

But again, the teenage characters don’t ring true. Who, at 17, even back in 2009, ever said “mind your own beeswax” or “criminy”? What teenager realizes with regret that she can’t remember the last time she and her boyfriend “made love” during the day? It’s the rare high school relationship, particularly between restless kids like Angel and Myles, that lasts three months, much less three years.

But what really stretches credulity is the incriminating picture on Facebook. Birdy is tagged in a photo which shows her holding hands with Myles at a pier and watching the Block Island ferry. For this, she is mercilessly slut-shamed. “I thought you were better than that,” Hector says.

It turns out the stakes aren’t nearly as high when it comes to first-degree murder. Angel has a temper, so the crime of passion is easily imagined. But imagine it we must because the killing is not on the page. We don’t see it happen and we don’t see what happens afterward. Nor do we learn about any psychological fallout.

Nobody’s behavior is examined or described, either before or after, certainly not with anything close to complexity. There’s no shock, no disbelief. In fact, it all gets rather humdrum. When Angel is held without bail, for example, it’s such a pain that the jailhouse toiletries are so expensive.

Myles remains a cipher. Was he telling the truth when he said Birdy was the only one who mattered? And if so, why did he allow this to happen? We never find out. Not a tear is shed for Birdy, except by her mother. Even the grandmother who shows up at court for Angel’s arraignment regrets only that she didn’t bring her knitting.

But in the end, this isn’t a novel about a murder, and it isn’t a novel about teenagers, any more than it’s a novel for teenagers. It’s a story about sex and cheating written for adults. It’s about beauty, freedom, and uncomplicated youth and how all that promise comes crashing down.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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