Book Review: OCEAN STATE by Jean McGarry

Local author Jean McGarry’s new collection of short stories, Ocean State (Johns Hopkins University Press: 2010), explores the bonds of family and community in the nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island. Her characters are drawn through the lenses of life’s major happenings — birth, death, marriage — and through these events her characters expand.

by Amanda Boyle

by Amanda Boyle

They are fully-realized individuals in their own right, but they fill the span from their own identities all the way to the Ocean State at large. A mother becomes a whole family as she stands in her soon-to-be-married daughter’s house, cleaning obsessively to prepare for the couple to move in. Her history and the family’s history saturate the pages. The expansiveness of this one character calls up a whole community of like families, the figures of which populate the other stories in the collection. This interpolation is Ocean State’s great strength.

On a minute level, the prose of McGarry’s stories rustles feather-like around its subjects. Periodically, this whispering prose pauses on a single image — the light on a patio wall, the silvery quality of a tailor-made suit — and these moments are real delights. They allow each story to pack a great deal of family and personal history into a small space, but still stop and gather up all the threads. The prose rarely ventures into the over-dense, so these instances are lyric oases in which a character’s experience materializes in real-time.

One story may span a generation, but immediate characters and the setting anchor each firmly. Often the family home, old or new, comes to the forefront. These places become the landmarks of the stories. The permanence of these landmarks lets the characters who inhabit them burgeon to encompass vast expanses. They also enable McGarry to sweep back and forth from a character’s past to the just-coming marriage or to the newborn baby. Death is never far from the page, but the constant presence of a next generation softens its severity.

In general, these stories hit a sound balance. They are sensitive to their characters and for the most part, they pull the reader right along. Occasionally one too many family members, neighbors or friends come into the text and sorting out their relationships to the main character can be a challenge.

Each character links the reader closer to the family and to the community, so these extra names aren’t really necessary to creating a holistic feeling. Fortunately, these moments are few; most of the stories succeed in their attention to the main players.

McGarry’s closeness to her characters serves her well; we dig into her characters’ lives and witness their passions and weaknesses with a placid eye. Like the doctor of “Transference”, we understand their inner workings, and through them we understand the workings of many.

The narrator of the standout “Dream Date”, a young girl navigating first dates and teasing sisters, crystallizes this viewpoint. Her frank, childish voice bounces between contemplating Danny Mac’s dreamy blue eyes and explaining how she has to hold her underpants up by the waistband.

These fancies do wonders for buoying up the tone of the whole collection, which otherwise might run the risk of becoming too melancholy. The stories of Ocean State plunge into the world of mysteries not commonplace, but nevertheless universally relatable: the clues a deceased father leaves to his daughter, the design of a wedding dress, the task of naming (and thus claiming) a newborn. Each story illuminates people and events beyond its own realm, all the while with soft prose blanketing the telling. From the landmark moments of its characters’ lives, Ocean State deduces a world and invites us to experience it as well.

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