Coburn’s novel traces the life of Phoebe Allen, a forty-something widow living an ostensibly successful life on a Puget Sound island, who finally comes to terms with the relationship that has haunted her for two decades. The author moves the central conflict of the story—Phoebe’s confrontation with former lover/movie director Whit Traynor—forward through the terrain of three generations of Phoebe’s family, loving friends on the island, and a childhood belief in fairy tales that clouds her judgment now.
Coburn does many things well in this book. Although I felt Owl Island missed its potential as a work of literature, I still learned from it. The characters are so well drawn, so detailed, that it’s hard to believe they are fictional. I can imagine the myriad charts Coburn must have created to keep their backgrounds and personalities distinct. From Phoebe’s mother Pearl’s secret history to daughter Laurienne’s career as a programmer in a biotech firm to the creation and filming of the movie Kiki, the level of Coburn’s detail is astonishing. Even minor characters such as Jasmine (Whit’s young astrologist wife), Cliff (Phoebe’s daughter’s lovable boyfriend), and Jack (Phoebe’s emotionally reserved professor emeritus father) have been given distinct voices and their own worlds to move about in, complete with songs, television shows, teas, technology, and even perfumes to anchor the era.
The raison d’etre of the novel for me was Coburn’s spot-on portrayal of Whit, a charming, talented predator who needs women and recognition to ground him. Whit is a psychological double for Tristan Blake, one of the main characters in my novel. Seeing this character unfold on the page was like having a blueprint; Coburn showed me what I need to do to make Tristan believable. First she revealed Whit’s appeal and mystery as Phoebe’s “imaginary friend” on his radio show. Then quickly, once the characters had met, she showed us his vulnerability: his self-doubt as a filmmaker, his fear that he couldn’t make Kiki without her. When things fall apart for Whit at the story’s end, he visits Phoebe in her office, seeking emotional support. When it doesn’t come (she’s finally discovered her strength!), he insults her. In a lesser author’s hands, the reader would be struck by what an s.o.b. this character was—but because Coburn had shown me Whit’s weaknesses all along, I understood his response. It was totally in keeping with who he was.
The author has some very nice segues in time from one chapter to the next, as if the narrator (omniscient third, in different characters’ heads) is remembering these details, letting them flow in a natural rhythm. Coburn alternates one chapter in the present with one in the past until they meet in time. I prefer a subtler way to weave in the backstory, although she does make this work. The backstory clearly accounts for Phoebe’s bad decisions, as well as her ability to rise above them in the end, with a little help from those who love her.
At the risk of shortchanging the many elements that worked well, I want to mention a few that didn’t. Coburn uses some lovely metaphors (onionskin paper with black holes in it from the typewriter, torn fishing nets, hummingbirds), but she spoils the effect by using them repeatedly, in different contexts, and telling the reader what they mean. There are also a number of instances where the dialogue, events, or metaphors are clearly in service to the plot, such as the childhood song “Don’t go in the lion’s cage tonight”; the Peter Pan gene at Laurienne’s biotech company; the variety of “Alices” in Phoebe’s last dream about Whit. Finally, the continuity of events from one generation to the next is as contrived as the timing of the alternating chapters: the deaths, shortly after marriage, of Pearl’s first husband, of Phoebe’s husband, and almost of Laurienne’s boyfriend (to let us know that things have, at last, changed. The secret history that Pearl kept from Phoebe and then Phoebe kept from Laurienne. The headaches and tumor that killed Pearl showing up as a threat to Phoebe and Laurienne, yet going nowhere.
Although I enjoyed the story and was rooting for Phoebe by the end, there was nothing subtle about Owl Island—it could have been 150 pages shorter. I’m going to work hard in my second draft to make my novel one of literary eloquence. (Please remind me that I said that.)