Ocean State

Reviewed by Anna Kate Moorer

Ocean State by Stewart O’Nan, New York, NY: Grove Press, 2023, 240 pages

Written by Stewart O’Nan, the novel Ocean State is perfect for the reader whose guilty pleasure is previewing the last page before starting the novel. The book details the murder of Birdy Alves, and the killer is revealed in the first sentence. The rest of Ocean State leads the reader on a journey to discover how and why the murder is committed through the alternating perspectives of the victim and the Oliviera family: sisters Angel and Marie and mother Carol. This change in perspective provides a variety of voices and personalities while O’Nan maintains the overall tone and pace. Even though the big question is answered immediately, the reader is then tasked with determining which character is the protagonist and which is the antagonist, although these roles may not be as clear as one would hope. Even though she was the victim of murder, Birdy Alves was not as innocent as she may seem, and her murderer may have simply been a by-product of the environment that they were raised in. The untangling of events keeps the reader guessing, and even though they know the final result, there are still surprises around every corner. All of these factors mixed with the small town setting of Ashaway, Rhode Island, is the perfect combination to entice readers.

While this novel could be categorized in the “murder mystery” genre, it definitely strays from the classic “whodunnit” sub-genre. To coin a new phrase, this book fits into a “whydunnit” category. The author weaves a tale where the reader is forced to focus on the reasoning behind the murder, which helps them avoid immediately judging the convicted. O’Nan has written his fair share of fiction books with his newer works leaning towards emotionally bittersweet topics that provide an aspect of romance along the way, and Ocean State is no exception to this description. The novel is divided into four main sections that detail the story as it was happening in real time in a third-person omnipotent narration, but each part is introduced through the first-person point-of-view of Marie who is communicating to the reader after the events of the novel have transpired. Through Marie’s introductions, the reader is prepared for what they will learn in the next section, and O’Nan pays the proper homage to his characters by perfectly titling each introduction.

Of course, one perk to having Marie introduce the different sections from a future standpoint is that it shows her progression to adulthood from her pre-teen years during the time of the murder. During her pre-teen years, Marie is smart, but, unlike her sister Angel, not overly confident. One thing she did learn from Angel was how to lie and sneak around, which Marie does plenty of in the novel, especially if her sister depends on it. Angel is popular and inherited her mother’s good looks, so she has always been praised for being beautiful, but this should not distract from her strong and willful personality. Despite their similar physical appearances, Angel is hellbent on living a different lifestyle from her mother. Carol, the mother of Angel and Marie, is a single mom who has bounced her kids around from place-to-place, each one depending on the guy who she is dating at the time. Carol tries so hard to keep her girls from becoming her, but she does little to change her erratic behavior. She may not know whether or not there is a frozen pizza in the freezer for dinner, but there will always be a bottle of wine in the refrigerator. Birdy, like Angel and Marie, was raised by a single mom, and she is always cheering on the Yankees. A petite soccer player, Birdy seems small and inconsequential, but she has no remorse for turning everyone’s world on its head if it means she can have the guy of her dreams. These four women lead the reader through the unraveling of the plot, and they help to diversify the storyline. The reader will anxiously continue perusing the pages and waiting until their favorite character takes center stage to share their perspective.

Ocean State is a riveting story that takes the reader back in time to discover if the murderer is justified or if the murdered is deserving. The book intertwines deep characters with a diverse setting, but it takes on a modern feel with the use of allusions sprinkled throughout the text. All of these elements push the reader to connect with the text, and they are further propelled by the lies and deception intermingling between the characters, but hey, “So much of love is pretending”.