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An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer — book review

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“I have learned one of the lessons of loneliness, one of its shocking side effects: when you are in a state of longing, desire goes on and on, like an ocean without a shore.”

An Ocean Without a Shore surprised me. In the very first page our narrator, Kip Woods, informs us that he’s awaiting his ‘sentence’. Occasionally addressing his listeners/readers directly (‘Your Honor’ and ‘the Court’) he recounts the events that led to his present circumstances.
Set in late nineties, An Ocean Without a Shore follows Kip, a gay man in his forties who works at a small investment firm and has been in love with his best friend since their college days. Thaddeus Kaufman, married with children, owns a property he can’t afford and as a persona non grata in Hollywood is struggling to succeed as a scriptwriter. When Thaddeus’ latest writing effort bear no fruit, he finds himself in need of a bailout, so he gives Kip a call. Lucky for him, Kip is always read, and more than willing, to help.

“I realize this all sounds rather abject. But it’s not really love unless there is something abject in it. Don’t you think?”

There is much to be admired in the novel. Scott Spencer high-register prose is striking. I was dazzled by Kip’s vocabulary, his expressive descriptions, and his long moments of introspections. Spencer beautifully renders Kip’s many feelings and thoughts, hinting at his underlining loneliness, vibrantly rendering his desire for Thaddeus. There is yearning, resentment, and sorrow. Kip is a private and remote person who has never fully reconciled himself with sexuality. What weighs on him the most are his unspoken feelings for Thaddeus. While some, such as Thaddeus’ wonderful uncle Morris, know just how deeply Kip feels for Thaddeus, Kip fears exposure. Ignoring his friends warnings, and and going against his own better judgement, Kip time and again comes to Thaddeus’ aid. Over the years, and in spite of their geographical locations, Kip thinks only of Thaddeus. Even when he realises that Thaddeus has grown into a deeply flawed man, he’s unable to ‘start living’ his own life.
Throughout the course of the novel there are many scenes featuring characters who make only small appearances. Yet, even if they appear for only a scene, readers are giving a clear impression of who they are. The people in this novel have their history, one that has clearly shaped who they are. The people surrounding Thaddeus are particularly toxic, they have fraught relationships with each other, and Kip almost seems at the periphery of this drama.
A sense of unease pervades Kip’s narration. We know that something is bound to happen, we can see how skewed his relationship with Thaddeus is, and of course, as Kip remind us, we know that he stands accused of a crime.
The setting and atmosphere within the novel have a deeply nostalgic quality. Spencer further enriches his narrative by adding a plethora of literary references and by having characters discuss politics and social issues relevant at the time. Kip’s philosophical meanderings are engrossing. While the questions he poses himself do not have easy answers, they do give us a glimpse into the most vulnerable parts of himself. In spite of his self-awareness her pursues a path of unhappiness, landing himself in a prison of his own making.
An Ocean Without a Shore is not a happy novel nor is it populated by happy people. There are few moments of respite for Kip, as he has, by the time the book has started, dedicated his life to a person that is not available (nor is he deserving of Kip). Yet, even if readers will despair at Kip for his undying devotion to Thaddeus, and for his inability to move on with his life, we will often feel as he does (unreciprocated love is a painful and all too common thing.
Kip’s reticent and slightly ambivalent narration brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe (from Villette), while the complex relationship between him and Thaddeus reminded me of the Teddy Wayne’s Apartment. Certain scenes wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ann Patchett novel (although Spencer’s novel is far more cynical, e.g. “You could almost despise them, but really in the larger scheme of things they were just irrelevant. As most of us are.”).
Readers who prefer fast paced narratives may want to steer clear of this novel. But if you are looking for a heartbreaking character study, look no further. Spencer charges seemingly ordinary moments and exchanges with tension, forcing us to question his characters’ intentions and the outcome of their relationships. Kip’s vibrantly humorous descriptions and his sardonic asides provide a welcome reprieve.
An Ocean Without a Shore is a spellbinding and elegantly written novel that touches upon many themes, such as loneliness, love, family, memory, and money. Kip’s narration, which could be subtle and oblique one moment before becoming openly emotional or heartbreakingly poignant, spoke to me (perhaps because I share some of his weakness).
However saddening Kip’s story was An Ocean Without a Shore remains a thing of beauty.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Some of my favourite quotes/passages (I more or less underlined the entire novel so I struggled to pick only a few):

“Lives are shaped by words and deeds, but what we don’t say might be just as powerful as what we do. Our silence works like a lathe, giving us our final form.”

“The walls of my room were painted white and I kept them bare, not wanting any images or posters or sayings or symbols to somehow define me in the eyes of others. The floors were bare, too. At one point I’d had a five-by-seven Persian carpet I’d bought from a thrift shop, but soon after brining it home I rolled it up and stored it. I thought it said something about me, thought I wasn’t sure what.”

“I have revisited and redone and reimagined that night countless times in my solitude. I have behaved in these imagined encounters in ways that my inexperience and shyness and fear would not permit at the time. In my imagination, I have ravished him. In my altered memories, I have made promises even a saint could not keep.”

“Just because something you desire might not be easy, or convenient, or even possible, that doesn’t stop you from wanting it.”

“Sometimes all that niceness is a way of making sure nobody quite sees you.”

“You don’t add up a person’s qualities like something on a balance sheet. We don’t know why we love the people we love, not if we really love them. That’s the whole purpose of love, to take us out of the rational, binary, up or down, in or out, black or white, good or bad, profit or loss, to take us out of all those everyday things into something sacred.”

“My privacy was paramount, thought it made me unheroic. Not everyone can be a hero; if everyone was heroic, then heroism would be nothing but doing what was expected and we would have no actual heroes. You understand?”

“Here’s something else about us torchbearers. We are possessive of the one we love and we are determined to maintain our hold on the idea of them. Our idea of them is really all we have. When you think about someone more or less constantly, you begin to believe—though you would never say so, not even to yourself—that they belong to you.”

“One moment my brain was full of chatter, hyperbole, justifications, and theories of human behavior, a few of them road tested, others shaky to say the least, and the next moment I just went dark, a plunge so precipitous it was like a dress rehearsal for sudden death.”

“I felt desire as a kind of wretchedness.”

“I feel overwhelmed, weirdly diminished. Somewhere along the way, Thaddeus had learned to turn his outgoing nature into a form of aggression, weaponizing the sweetness. Do we all of us become steadily shittier as we grow older?”

“Ah, there it was! As if I haven’t had enough. The Magna Carta of self-pity.”

“Hey, heterosexuals, seriously: Get a fucking grip!”

“He was standing three feet away from me. Thirty-six inches. I was unraveling. Passion—untapped, untried, untested, and above all unsullied by compromise or even reality—surged through me.”

“E. M. Forster wrote that given the choice of betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he’d have the guts to betray his country. Understandably, he left out the part about betraying yourself.”

“I was loosing track of who I was, and with the next breath the whole concept of knowing who you are seemed dubious.”

“For this I had thrown away half of my life? For this? For him? For Thaddeus Kaufman? Short answer: yes, if it pleases the Court. Further elucidation, Your Honor: I’d do it all again. ”

“You’d think obsession would simply wither and die, but you’d be wrong. Hopeless love thrives in silence and darkness.”

“I was used to calling myself names. Self-loathing barely fazed; I had self-loathing for breakfast.”

“Yet here came a sharp stinging moment of remembrance, a gasp of memory, crushing and quotidian, devastating in its apparent lack of significance and demanding attention by its mere presence.”

“The heart, malnourished, fearful of dying of starvation, seizes whatever it can, knowing how to live on coincidence and trivialities, gathering and gobbling all the little morsels of meaning, and making a meal of them.”

“I glanced at my watch, feeling that horribly familiar panic—all the time that was being wasted, utterly wasted, the hours, the months, and finally the years.”

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