The best books you’ve never heard of about Rhode Island

Who am I?

As a Rhode Islander, I didn’t have to do too much research to write Ready, Set, Oh. I was born in Providence, and I grew up in Cranston, a suburb outside the city. After graduating from a local high school, I studied at Brown University and after years of living in different cities, fifteen years ago I settled in Providence with my family. I adore this place—we have vibrant neighborhoods, gorgeous beaches, plenty of history, and a surprisingly lively literary scene. I assembled this list to draw attention to some great but under-recognized books set in Rhode Island, either by Rhode Islanders or writers with significant connections to the Biggest Little. 


I wrote...

Ready, Set, Oh

By Diane Josefowicz,

Book cover of Ready, Set, Oh

What is my book about?

Set against the upheavals of the Sixties, Ready, Set, Oh chronicles the struggles of three adults coming of age in the gritty, quirky city of Providence, Rhode Island. Tino has just lost his draft deferment; his girlfriend Primrose, unexpectedly pregnant, is about to lose her mind. Their friend Lupo, a UFO-chasing astronomer, just wants to finish his dissertation—but his advisor only has eyes for his pet research subject, a dolphin that lives in his backyard pool. All are hostages in different ways to their families and to history. Ultimately, they must confront the question: How much choice do we really have in the paths our lives take? 

The books I picked & why

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Exes

By Max Winter,

Book cover of Exes

Why this book?

After Clay Blackall loses his brother to suicide, he lights out for Twinrock, a decaying mansion perched on an island in Narragansett Bay, where he attempts to retrace his brother’s steps in his final days and hours. Winter’s quirky novel unfolds from multiple points of view. In addition to Clay, there is Vinco Vincenti, a failed author who has taken to impersonating the actor Judge Reinhold, and Alix Maus, an adjunct college instructor burdened by her past. All of them have ties to Clay’s lost brother. But the star of the show is Twinrock itself—a fictionalized version of Clingstone, the mysterious mansion that can still be seen off the coast of Jamestown, RI. Fans of writers like Robert Coover will enjoy Winter’s stylish prose, which convincingly evokes the bohemian atmosphere of the 1980s on Providence’s East Side.


Providence

By Caroline Kepnes,

Book cover of Providence

Why this book?

This compulsively readable novel by Cape Cod native and television writer Kepnes (7th Heaven, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) begins in a New Hampshire middle school where nerdy Jon and sweet Chloe are best friends united against the provincial attitudes of their small town. Everyone is shocked when John is kidnapped and given up for dead. Years later he turns up in Providence, where he has been kept in a coma by a rogue neuroscience professor who wants to transform him into the monster of The Dunwich Horror by Providence’s own, ambivalently celebrated H.P. Lovecraft. When John learns that he now has terrifying powers that put him at odds with everyone he loves, he sets out to find the professor whose recklessness got him into this mess—and maybe saved his life.


How Are You Going to Save Yourself

By J.M. Holmes,

Book cover of How Are You Going to Save Yourself

Why this book?

This novel-in-stories follows a quartet of friends—Dub, Rollo, Rye, and Gio—as they party, fight, love, and occasionally even consider leaving Rhode Island. Gio, the group’s storyteller, observes, comments, and guides the reader through a hard-edged world of race and class oppression. Guns and drugs flood Gio’s world, but these forces are offset by bonds of family, friends, and friends who become family. Never has the overlooked town of Pawtucket been so lovingly portrayed, and I’ll not soon forget Holmes’ mouthwatering descriptions of Portuguese Catholic feast days in East Providence. A keen observer of toxic masculinity, Holmes shows how misogyny holds this group of young men together while it also holds them back.


Ocean State

By Jean McGarry,

Book cover of Ocean State

Why this book?

In this baker’s dozen of stories, Jean McGarry reprises favorite topics—tight-knit families, fraying loves, intimations of mortality. A native Rhode Islander with ties to Providence’s blue-collar Irish community, McGarry paints the state and its inhabitants in shades as tender as they are unsparing. McGarry’s great theme is decline: Everything that starts out promising invariably goes bad. Steeped in this worldview, her characters are lively and quick with an insult—even when they’re confronted by experts who presume to know them better than they know themselves. One mordant example: A therapist finally gets a breakthrough with a tough-to-reach Rhode Islander. The patient feels relief, and the therapist urges him to attend sessions more regularly. “You’re at it again,” the patient remarks. “Save your advertisements for someone else.”


There Your Heart Lies

By Mary Gordon,

Book cover of There Your Heart Lies

Why this book?

I’ve been reading Mary Gordon ever since a fellow writer put her novel Spending in my hands in 1999. Two decades later, I remain as impressed by Gordon’s moral intelligence as by her luscious prose. In this novel, Marian, an older woman living in coastal Rhode Island, relives her young adulthood, which she spent fighting Franco’s forces in Spain while posing as the wife of a politically engaged doctor who happened to be her dead brother’s former lover. Now Marian’s granddaughter has arrived on her doorstep in search of her history and is inspired to visit Spain herself. But what she discovers is only what Marian already knows, living by the coast: that a quiet life in a backwater can also be free and meaningful.


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