Written by: Stephen Markley
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
This summer, I was looking for one of those books that views the characters through flashbacks. You know, the kind of story where we see who the characters are now and what moments in the past shaped their present-tense personas. Reading the description of Ohio by Stephen Markley, I figured this book was just the one I was looking for. Too bad I wouldn’t get to read it until late into the fall.
It all begins with the New Canaan parade in honor of Rick Brinklan, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps killed in Iraq in 2007. As the author brings us through what it is like to live in New Caanan, a small town where everyone knows everyone else, he notes that there are some people in the former football hero’s life that are missing from the event. These are the people this book focuses on as the author brings us into 2013 when those same four individuals converge upon a town they spent years avoiding.
In the summer of 2013, former high school basketball star Bill Ashcroft is furthest from the boy he once was. Sure, he is still politically active, still has that smartass attitude that has gotten him in trouble over the years, but he is more lost than he ever was as a teenager. His drug and drink-addled journey to New Canaan is a favor for a former lover, Kaylyn Lynn. When they were in school, Kaylyn was Rick’s girl and there is more than a little guilt in Ashcroft’s life as he considers the affair they had behind Rick’s and his own girlfriend, Lisa’s, back all those years ago. But he has always been infatuated with the dangerous aura of Kaylyn and so, when she asks him to smuggle a package containing God knows what into the town for her a decade plus after high school, he knows he can’t deny her. Perhaps they can rekindle something of the romance they shared in the past.
Stacey Moore, former high school volleyball star, also harbors a hope to rekindle an old romance. But first, she has to face the people who have made her feel less than she should over the years. The first of those individuals is the mother of her former lover, Lisa…yes, the Lisa that Bill Ashcroft used to date. It is Lisa who made Stacey face and embrace who she really was and somehow Lisa has disappeared from the lives she touched, dropping a line here or there, but staying away from her hometown. Her mother wants to find out why. But she’s not the only person Stacey must face in hopes of making her life whole again – she must face the one person she has loved over the years who has made her feel she is an abomination.
Dan Eaton, a friend of the infamous Lisa, also went to Iraq, around the same time as Rick. A geeky bookworm in school, he seemed the least likely to go to war, but he left his high school sweetheart to fight for a country he believed in, losing the girl and his eye in the process. Now, he returns to New Canaan, a different man, suffering from PTSD and the guilt of what he experienced during his last tour in Iraq. Can his dinner date with his former girlfriend be a trigger for something no one else could have expected?
And then there’s Tina Ross, former girlfriend of the captain of the football team all those years ago in high school. Tina’s a shell of her former self, the abuse of the past catching up to her in ways she wasn’t capable of realizing. Trauma she suffered in high school has followed her all these years, threatening to take her life, but she has finally found someone who accepts her the way she is. Afraid to lose him and the good life she is promised, Tina decides she must erase the memory of her past. In order to do that, she must face her former high school boyfriend/tormentor.
As the paths of the former friends converge, the odds are good that their paths will collide, but will that be for the better or worse?
When I first began reading this book, I wondered what its purpose really was. Starting off with perhaps the least likeable and most confused character of the bunch, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like where this book was going. I began to think that Ohio might have been an avenue for Stephen Markley to get his political and personal views across – views about our government, Obama and Trump; views about homosexuality and the shame that those coming out can be put through; views about 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan; views about those returning from war with PTSD and more. But I urge readers to stick to it and see this through as I did.
The more I read, the more I was drawn into the story. Not just because I found that the author and I shared similar views, but because the characters were extremely interesting and relatable. You can understand how Stacey’s realization about herself can cause her some serious woes. Homosexuality is something that goes against everything she was ever taught, yet it is who she is, putting her at odds with herself. We can understand Bill Ashcraft’s loneliness and his inability to find himself, his beliefs closing in around him. We can understand Eaton, having known individuals who have returned to war much different from the way they started out. And we can relate to Tina and a trauma that has never quite left her. There is no one in life who hasn’t suffered some trauma or other and, though it may not be as complex or horrific as Tina’s, one can still relate how that trauma can shape who you have become.
By the time I got to the later chapters of Ohio, I realized that this book centered on one character in particular. When I began the journey, I thought that would be Rick Brinklan, but I was so wrong. It was Lisa…the one woman who tied them all together, the lover, the friend…the one person that most wonder what happened to. The final moments of the book reveal everything, from Tina’s misguided plot, to Stacey’s nemesis, to the horrific secret Dan has been keeping that is eating him alive, to the contents of that mysterious package, to the whereabouts of the elusive Lisa.
The ending is so surprising as to evoke a “No WAY!” from me, but once I read it, I realized that I may have just been in denial and knew how the mystery of where Lisa was would end all along. And that’s why I encourage readers to stick with Ohio, even if you don’t agree with the views of the characters or their actions, because the end results are terrific. Stephen Markley is an excellent storyteller, keeping us interested (in my case, seriously addicted) until the very end. Ohio is definitely a book worth reading and I can’t wait to read more from Stephen Markley.