Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Ocean State

by Stewart O’Nan

Set in a working-class town on the Rhode Island coast, O’Nan’s latest is a crushing, beautifully written, and profoundly compelling novel about sisters, mothers, and daughters, and the terrible things love makes us do

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date March 07, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6233-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date March 15, 2022
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-5927-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $27.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date March 15, 2022
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-5928-1
  • US List Price $27.00

In the first line of Ocean State, we learn that a high school student was murdered, and we find out who did it. The story that unfolds from there with incredible momentum is thus one of the build-up to and fall-out from the murder, told through the alternating perspectives of the four women at its heart. Angel, the murderer, Carol, her mother, and Birdy, the victim, all come alive on the page as they converge in a climax both tragic and inevitable. Watching over it all is the retrospective testimony of Angel’s younger sister Marie, who reflects on that doomed autumn of 2009 with all the wisdom of hindsight.

Angel and Birdy love the same teenage boy, frantically and single-mindedly, and are compelled by the intensity of their feelings to extremes neither could have anticipated. O’Nan’s expert hand paints a fully realized portrait of these women, but also weaves a compelling and heartbreaking story of working-class life in Ashaway, Rhode Island. Propulsive, moving, and deeply rendered, Ocean State is a masterful novel by one of our greatest storytellers.

Praise for Ocean State:

“Interesting and enduring . . . O’Nan is an enticing writer, a master of the illuminatingly mundane moments . . . In Ocean State, O’Nan is subverting the thriller, borrowing its momentum to propel this bracing, chilling novel. Whereas thrillers tend to use murders as a prurient jumping-off point, the entryway to the reader’s pleasure — that chance to play Columbo or Kinsey Millhone in our heads — O’Nan takes his time, humanizing this story to make the hole where the victim was suitably substantial. Highly specific to the landmarks of the real Ashaway, but ringing with the universal, Ocean State is a map for the emotional dead ends of America, where kids kill other kids over seemingly nothing. O’Nan understands that at least in the moment, it is for everything.”—New York Times

“O’Nan’s great gift is that we want to know more about every person he writes, no matter how unremarkable they seem from the outside . . . Through prolonged exposure to the girls’ thoughts, O’Nan builds the novel’s tension until it feels like the air right before a monsoon; these teens, like all of us, are ruled by their passions, and passions can and do transcend human law . . . The entire telling becomes an act of empathy. It’s an invention, but one that drives home irrevocably and elegantly what you’d been feeling as you read but did not fully acknowledge: that there are as many different kinds of pain as there are people.”—Boston Globe

“Even as he inverts the form, veteran novelist Stewart O’Nan effectively keeps you turning the pages quickly with this tragic story of teenage love…it should be mentioned that the sections of the story narrated by the murder victim, Birdy, gather an almost excruciating tension as she approaches her inevitable fate. O’Nan makes her much more than a simple plot device, and it’s what elevates the story to more than just a page-turner.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

Ocean State is a haunting immersion into the desperate and immediate world of adolescence gone wrong, where emotional certainty dictates that actions be taken before rational minds can pull back. The result is a gripping march to the inevitable, presented through the close perspective of four women whose lives will soon be forever changed… In addition to granting us close proximity to each character’s movements, O’Nan deftly provides a larger collage of the enormity that unfolds, leaving us with reflection of the tenuousness of life, the wish that this tragedy could have been avoided, and the privilege of having been witness to its progression.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“The events are horrifying, and not only in terms of that final violence, the writing is lovely, glimmering. O’Nan evokes Ocean State’s setting, the blue-collar Rhode Island town of Ashaway, with equal care: perhaps unbeautiful, but rendered with detail and tenderness. O’Nan’s greatest accomplishment is in the compassionate portrayal of characters who are each guilty of smaller and larger wrongs, but whose motivations, concerns and battles always feel of real concern… Ocean State is a compelling, propulsive read: easy to inhale but difficult in some ways to stomach. This is a story less about love than about obsession and family connections and disconnections, and about the devastations of hardscrabble lives. The ugly turns beautiful in O’Nan’s scintillating prose, and his four main characters will linger with readers long after their stories end.”—Shelf Awareness

“[A] beautifully rendered and heartbreaking story… This isn’t a crime novel; it’s a Shakespearean tragedy told in spare, poetic, insightful prose.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The latest from O’Nan begins with the shocking and tragic end of a teen love triangle… O’Nan’s detailed, sympathetic portrayal of his characters and their community will appeal to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), Olive Kitteridge (2008), and Olive, Again (2019).”—Booklist

“Prolific, protean O’Nan examines a familiar subject, hard-pressed working-class life in America, through the lens of a Rhode Island murder… the book is rich in social detail… and warmed by O’Nan’s customary tenderness for ordinary lives. Everyday People was the title of one of his first great novels, in 2001, and depicting everyday people with sensitive acuity remains one of his principal artistic achievements here…finely rendered with poignant realism.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Stewart O’Nan’s haunting and fleet Ocean State tunnels deeply into the heady, hard lives of the vivid young women at its center. Half-broken and full of longing, these women move us deeply. As the story hurtles toward an act of violence that feels both impossible and inexorable, we find ourselves wanting to stop and protect all of them.”—Megan Abbott

“From Speed Queen to The Good Wife to Emily, Alone, Stewart O’Nan has been one of the best chroniclers of the lives of American women. He writes about the single mothers, the watchful daughters, the neighborhoods where loyalty and struggle are echoed in hard work and marriages on the rocks. In Ocean State he writes once again about the women I know so well—who work as convalescent aides, in grocery stores and factories, mothers searching for one more chance at love, and daughters finding their first loves, with tragic consequences. I could not put this book down, and finished it so fast, and I keep seeing the rainy shores and abandoned mills, the three generations of women in America.”—Susan Straight

“One of Stewart O’Nan’s many gifts is a keen and unflinching eye lit with an abiding compassion for his characters, all of which is on display in his mesmerizing new novel, Ocean State. Set in the forgotten streets of post-industrial, blue collar Rhode Island, this timely and gritty tale takes us deeply into the lives of girls and women who must navigate the kind of loss that can either break or strengthen the ties that bind us all. Ocean State is a gem glittering in the darkness.”—Andre Dubus III

“Stewart O’Nan is out to break your heart in the most beautiful way. He is writing with his full power unleashed. This book is a classic.”—Luis Alberto Urrea

“In the opening paragraph Marie (who would be right at home in a Shirley Jackson novel) tells us the awful thing that’s going to happen, but of course, she doesn’t reveal the whole mesmerizing, devastating story. O’Nan has the integrity to not flinch, not even once, while expertly imbuing his characters with empathy, insight and authenticity. A uniquely 21st Century American tragedy, Ocean State wraps its hand around your heart and squeezes.”—Paul Tremblay

“What O’Nan has done perhaps better than anybody else the past ten years is deliver the complexity, heartbreak and human drama of everyday people living everyday lives.”—Jonathan Evison

Praise for Stewart O’Nan:

“Stewart O’Nan loves us and forgives us and watches us when we aren’t looking.”—Amy Bloom

“Our contemporary master Stewart O’Nan—the king of the quotidian.”—Elizabeth Strout

“I love all of his books—all of them.”—Terry McMillan

“O’Nan is an incredibly versatile and charming writer.”—George Saunders

“If you haven’t read Stewart O’Nan, you have some catching up to do.”—Stephen King

“[O’Nan’s] finest and deepest novel to date . . . The action rises and ebbs with the rhythms of daily life—meals, swimming, after-dinner videos, the children’s bedtime. . .. The general absence of melodrama allows O’Nan to focus on the characters, and he draws them with sympathy and subtlety, especially the women.”—New York Times Book Review, on Wish You Were Here

“Stark and brilliantly mesmerizing . . . You read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become better acquainted with the characters, whom O’Nan makes fascinating and familiar. Here are ‘our real lives.’”—Los Angeles Times, on Wish You Were Here

“O’Nan reveals how close a good and caring family can sit by disaster with disaster nevertheless held in abeyance.”—Baltimore Sun, on Wish You Were Here

“Riveting. . .. O’Nan has written the perfect summer-by-the-lake read. . .. This is the landscape of family Jonathan Franzen illuminates in The Corrections, or Jane Smiley in Ordinary Love.”—Chicago Tribune, on Wish You Were Here

“Filled with the type of life lessons that the best fiction has to offer. . .. [O’Nan] conveys this through a sprawling, generously written saga that imparts exceptional insights into the human heart.”—Charlotte Observer, on Wish You Were Here

“The tableau of daily life is expertly painted, and O’Nan takes time with his story, drawing the reader into a world created with unwavering confidence. . .. For this author of seemingly limitless scope, perhaps this novel will prove to be O’Nan’s ‘breakout book.’”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Wish You Were Here

“It’s hard not to admire O’Nan’s earnestness and his compassion for his characters.”—San Francisco Chronicle, on Wish You Were Here

“Beautifully spare and poignant . . . a novel that charms not through its plot, but through its subtle revelations of character and the human condition.”—New York Times Book Review, on Henry, Himself

“Stewart O’Nan excels at portraying the dilemmas and desires of ordinary people . . . A wise, tender and humorous writer, he portrays outwardly unexceptional people with rich inner lives defined by doubt and anxiety, affection and hope. Henry, Himself is a beautiful book with a touch of the ineffable about it, and the best novel I have read so far this year.”—Seattle Times, on Henry, Himself

“O’Nan, with some of his most gorgeous writing, [provides] Henry instances of unexpected grace . . . This novel is a lovely tribute to the enduring mystery of an ordinary life.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Henry, Himself

“O’Nan has returned to the mode that marks his best work, capturing America’s shaky middle class with dignity . . . Tracking Henry’s subtle interplay with [his wife] Emily, and the unspoken mysteries that concern him, O’Nan reveals a rich inner life.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune, on Henry, Himself

“O’Nan’s best novel yet . . . It’s heartbreaking stuff—I will confess I found myself sobbing at certain, often unexpected points . . . and yet the novel’s brilliance lies just as much with O’Nan’s innate comic timing.”—New York Times Book Review, on Emily, Alone

“Emily is as authentic a character as any who ever walked the pages of a novel . . . filled with joy and rue . . . an ordinary life made, by its quiet rendering, extraordinary.”—Boston Globe, on Emily, Alone

Reading Group Guide

Reading group guide for Stewart O’Nan’s Ocean State

Guide by Kirsten Giebutowski

1. Ocean State alternates between two modes of narration: first-person retrospective, with Marie looking back and telling us what happened, and close third-person, where we get the perspectives of Birdy, Angel, Carol, and Marie, as events unfold in the present tense. Why did O’Nan choose to tell the story this way? Do you trust Marie as a narrator? Why or why not? How does the sequencing of the four numbered sections of the book encourage us to compare and contrast the characters’ experiences?

2. Describe the portrait O’Nan paints of Ashaway, Rhode Island. Why set this particular story there? If it were set in another part of the country or another socioeconomic milieu, would the story be different? O’Nan uses Rhode Island’s nickname for the novel’s title—does the phrase “ocean state” also carry a metaphorical meaning that speaks to the story and its characters?

3. Marie is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school and refers to it throughout the novel. Why do you think O’Nan has chosen this book as her main literary point of reference? Was there a book that loomed large in your consciousness as you were growing up?

4. How would you describe Marie’s self-image? What factors affect it? In the final chapter, do you feel sorry for the adult Marie? Or has she gained a sense of importance from her role as chronicler? The drama that surrounds her makes her largely an observer, but where does Marie show agency?

5. In the prologue, Marie watches a movie with Angel and thinks: “It didn’t matter that half the time she was on her phone . . . All I wanted was to be close to her like this . . . I wished we could stay there forever” (p. 8). How does this scene describe their relationship? What kind of sister is Angel to Marie, and Marie to Angel? How do they support and betray one another? Marie becomes a kind of surrogate older sister to Brookie—does their relationship have a similar dynamic?

6. How does O’Nan represent and investigate mother-daughter relationships? What kind of mother is Carol?

7. What do we know about Myles? How do each of the women see him, and how does class consciousness affect their attitudes toward him? In the final chapter, after we learn Myles’s sentence, we hear nothing more about him. Does it surprise you that Angel doesn’t seem to have stayed in touch with him? What does the book suggest about power, money, and family connections? Are we left to worry about Myles despite all that he has?

8. The stories in Ocean State belong to its female characters. How do the male characters function in this book? Are there parallels you can draw between Frank, Wes, Russ, Hector, and Myles? Are some of them treated unfairly by the women in their lives?

9. Many of the names in the novel—of characters, vehicles, pets—are richly associative: Birdy, Angel, Ofelia, Hector and his Charger, and Myles’s Eclipse among them. Which names do you find the most fitting? What kinds of associations do they evoke, and how do they affect your reading experience?

10. A haunting motif pervades the book, appearing in Marie’s favorite show, Ghost Whisperer, in the Halloween-time setting, and in Angel’s visit to her grandfather’s grave. Marie’s grandmother’s house, too, is full of pictures of Carol, but only from her youth, “as if she’d died in a prom-night car crash” (p. 105). How are the characters haunted by past generations, and by their own mistakes and dreams?

11. Revisit the section that begins “Marie knows she shouldn’t eat the whole pizza” (p. 39). How does the author describe Marie’s eating disorder? What are its causes? What makes it worse? What other forms of self-destructive behavior do we see in the novel?

12. In the Oliviera house, it’s hard to keep secrets. Marie and Angel search their mother’s trash for clues as to what she’s been up to and with whom. Marie snoops around Angel’s room whenever possible, and Carol thinks to herself, after the police surprise her by finding a fake driver’s license in Angel’s room: “Part of her job is searching out her child’s favorite hiding places, learning her deepest secrets” (p. 172). Is hiding things (and sniffing them out) an inevitable part of family life?

13. Birdy feels possessed by her desire for Myles, “as if someone or something else has taken control of her” (p. 10). Are we all victims of our desires? How much of what happens with Birdy and Angel can be attributed to adolescence? What or who do you think is most to blame for what happens? Is Marie’s prank another example of an uncontrollable desire—the manifestation of troubled feelings she tries to keep down?

14. Compare Birdy and Angel: their family lives, their school and work lives, their aspirations, their self-images. How parallel are their stories? What makes them different? What draws each of them to Myles? What could have saved them from acting as they did?

15. When Birdy is in bed with Myles for the first time, O’Nan writes: “Now that she has him, she’s afraid of losing him” (p. 23). And afterward, driving away: “After being so close, it’s strangely freeing to be alone, her mind emptying, finally at rest” (p. 28). Later, taking a selfie of herself with Myles as they walk along the wharf, Birdy “catches people watching them and imagines they’re jealous. Deep down, she is too. This happiness is an act” (p. 62). What is she getting from being with Myles, given all the anxiety? Is there a model in the book of what a good relationship looks like?

16. Birdy thinks that she and Myles are “beyond right and wrong, like criminals. They won’t stop until they’re caught” (p. 61). Angel and Myles, posing for photographs in their Halloween costumes, feel like “two supervillains joining forces to defeat their nemesis” (p. 150). Is this a typical teenage mindset, of reveling in rebellion, wanting to be two against the world? Is it also part of our cultural fantasy life to be above the law and above cultural norms? What role does social media play in the novel?

17. Revisit the scene at the CVS (pp. 18-21). Consider it from the perspective of the employees, the manager, and the customers. Whom do you have the most sympathy for? Is this scene an implicit comment on our socioeconomic system, with its impersonal chain-stores, menial forms of labor, and desperate consumers? Is it hard to maintain dignity within an undignified system?

18. Leading up to Angel’s hearing, the media has a field day covering a case where the defendant is a beautiful young woman, and the Olivieras receive obscene, threatening phone calls from men. Marie thinks that “the ugly want to see the beautiful suffer” (p. 182). Where else in the book do we see moments of violence against women? How does misogyny affect the characters’ lives?

19. Ocean State is replete with references to popular culture, particularly TV shows, movies, and pop songs. What do they add to the story? When you think of your high school years, do certain movies and songs immediately come to mind?

Books and authors you may also enjoy: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund; Goldengrove by Francine Prose; novels by Russell Banks, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, and Elizabeth Strout