A thriller wrapped in a story of sisters and first love
As if objecting to her mother’s perceived levity, Angel is firmly attached to her wealthy guitar-playing boyfriend, Myles Parrish, for three years. “Myles was his first. Myles is just her. When Angel visits her family at their summer home just up the hill, helping them with chores like putting the flags on the deck – O’Nan’s eye for small details is exquisite – she feels fleeting pride in ownership. However, Myles is going to college next year and then “she knows she’s going to lose it to some rich girl and there’s nothing she can do about it.”
In the fall of 2009, however, the girl who threatens their relationship is not rich at all. Birdy Alves is a high school kid who works at the local D’Angelo (a chain of New England sandwich shops), lives with her widowed mother, and earns good grades. She has a boyfriend, but all she wants is Myles. When we see them together when they first meet in the empty summer house, Birdy is aware that she can’t be the first girl he brought there, but melts when he “grows her hair out of his face like Keanu”.
Every text is a thrill, every wait between communications is torture. When Birdy kisses Myles on the head or briefly “allows him to hold on to his arm” like a real girlfriend, O’Nan takes us right into the disorienting ecstasy of young love. Myles is the least explored character in the novel; Still, it’s clear that he’s not worth either of these girls’ time, let alone their lives.
The spoiler is in that first sentence, but when Birdy said goodbye to her family dog, a cocker spaniel named Ofelia (oh the details!), and headed towards her destiny, a light went out. We become mourners as O’Nan turns his narrative toward investigation, due process, and the wreckage of the family.
Whatever genre he plays with – this is his 20th book (not counting novels and collections) – O’Nan is a seductive writer, a master of illuminating and mundane moments. In “Henry Himself” (2019), a prequel to the Maxwell family series he started with “Wish You Were Here” in 2002, the climax, as it stands, features a family reunion for a chore, the dismantling of a television antenna unnecessary roof. But in a larger sense, he’s there for the crumbling of society, whether it’s a seemingly secure bourgeois family like the Maxwells, diminishing from one generation to the next, a corporate which closes (“Last Night at the Lobster”), from another young the story of the life of a murderer (“The Speed Queen”) or the collapse of the Alves and Oliviera families; part of Marie Oliviera dies this fall when she loses both her innocence and her sister as her constant.