“Can't be too kind and keep things going if you're a woman. Everyone takes advantage given the chance.”
Things in beach towns are rarely as scenic as they appear. This proves true for the characters that inhabit Mary-Beth Hughes’s The Ocean House, a series of linked stories occurring across decades at the Jersey Shore. From three generations of women in a family experiencing varied kinds of trauma to a myriad of men testing the limits of power society has unwarrantly bestowed upon them, the stories offer a small crack of light into the bleak realities of a community.
The Ocean House: Stories. By Mary-Beth Hughes. Grove Atlantic. 2021. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
This was another treat from the pile of Grove gallies I have been lucky enough to collect in my time with the house. I am also a particular fan of Executive Editor Elisabeth Schmitz’s list of books.
You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!
What did I think?
I was immediately struck by a dark, ethereal quality ringing throughout each of these stories, one where things happen “not in a firm way, more in a dreamy way” and even the characters admit to feeling removed, as if at times their lives belong to someone else they’re reading about in a book. Everything in Hughes’s world could feasibly happen in the reality most of us know, but something about it is also off: characters that are seemingly too young to have amalgam fillings, that keep checklists “of the fabulous” and wear sweatpants that are “yellow like, like nothing real.” They seem eager to convince the reader of their sensibilities, too, from Faith—a mother who after the tragic loss of her son finds herself in a long state of mental unrest—trying to normalize the games her mother, Irene, plays that leave Faith “panting with indignation or grief or confusion,” to Cece, Faith’s daughter, who tries to undercut how “the impulse or intrigue or curiosity or drive or desire” toward moving her life forward has “tipped over and stopped without her noticing” after experiencing sexual trauma. It’s as if making it sound unreal makes it all bearable for them.
The men in the stories are often the most unsettling things, with their “coat hanger shoulders, stiff and pointing” that occasionally might show “kindness but of a very narrow sort.” We see it first with the father in the titular story, how he smiles at his wife in an ugly way that his daughters learn to equate with pleasure, something that should make them happy, too (that it’s actually an exception if a father isn’t beating anyone). The same danger lives within other men, too: a near-stranger that shows up on a back porch with a loaded gun and pushes up hard against women so they are forced to feel his heartbeat against their own; a stepfather who grips his daughter hard to “wipe whatever mess was on his palm down the front of her dress like it was a bib she wore for him and his needs”; partners, such as Chloe’s boyfriend, Karl, in “Dove” who frequently talks “about what he'd do to Chloe once she grew up enough to love him in the way he required” and manipulates her to the point where she asks his permission just to leave a room. The only slight exception is Cece’s friend, Sebastian, but even he ultimately lets her down, disappearing from her world after she is assaulted, which feels worse than the offenses committed by the other men because he showed her hope, “as if she'd survived something life extinguishing only to be felled by a snub.”
Looming over this world is also the theme of death. Every short story in the collection has at least one character who we only experience as they are on their way out of this world and into, presumably, another, catching mere glimpses of the journey in between, the uncertainty. This is painful, but what is almost worse are the characters around them who in surviving trauma come out of it alive but feeling as though something inside of them is permanently gone. “I hurt all over,” one woman says of this kind of deathly ache, doubting that it will ever pass as her newborn child is taken away from her for fear in a haunting scheme by her sister-in-law. Faith describes this sensation best, how she does not feel as if there is any kind of lever to relieve her of the pain or make her open again to possibility. “It had been burned right out of her.” In some ways, Hughes almost morbidly paints the loss of life altogether as the better option than having to lose a part of one’s self.
🌟 3/5 — Good
This book is certainly one for language lovers as Hughes has an ear and an eye for fresh description: calling a light loud, having a character cry until he is hungry, declaring that a house finds its most cunning hour at “six on a September evening.” The unusualness pulled me in over and over again, trying to picture parents finding “the exact place on each forehead to efficiently deliver their love” for their children and what exactly the expression is “of someone eager to sort out the bad fruit.” I could really celebrate the specificity all day, especially when it comes to Lee-Ann, Faith’s deeply unsuitable baby sitter with tattooed fingers, a spitting, bronchial cough accompanying a half-cigarette, and a penchant for flirting with drug dealers (is this the same way that Faith’s spinal cord flirted with in the fatal car accident Lee-Ann causes?) who embodies “a rudeness that was almost interesting.” It’s only second to Kai, Cece’s therapist whose sessions are compared to “playing house with the least friendly kid in the neighborhood.”
What becomes frustrating, however, is the way the stories often refuse to say things clearly, to move narrative along without hovering in one of the ethereal bubbles for what can feel like too long; to the point where it feels almost blistering. I think this might be the reason some reviewers didn’t finish the collection, growing tired of characters pointing out strains in rooms but not being fully told why they exist, of someone stating something to someone else about how no one can be sure of anything and having it be enough. Some of this certainly could have been bettered balanced, though it was sort of tongue-in-cheek when Sebastian’s inability to talk about things becomes a literal plot-point as he struggles with this emptiness of knowledge on his mother’s deathbed. “It was the kind of thing his mother knew and he had never asked her, because he'd thought there would always be a long grassy carpet of time for that,” Hughes writes. “To get that kind of information. Other stuff always mattered more. But what was that stuff?” Although I eventually began to float on this cloudy ocean of storytelling, I did have the same question.
Beyond the book.
Hughes is still doing press for this book. Most recently, she was (virtually) at Oblong Books & Music to chat with author Debra Jo Immergut about The Ocean House and the writerly life at-large. You can watch the whole conversation here. If you just want to get a little glimpse of the collection without fully committing, you can taste test one of the stories from the collection, “California,” on LitHub. Also, if you think the ethereal vibes but with a more straight-forward narrative might be your style, archival readings Hughes’ has given from her previous works. can be found on her website.
See you again soon!