Book Reviews of Owl Island


The Seattle Times
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Setting wise eyes on a heroine's, and Seattle's, coming of age

"Owl Island" (Ballantine, 354 pp., $23.95) delivers the dual joys of a writer who wields a confident broad brush and has a sharp eye for tiny, perfect detail—an unusual skill set that's deepened appreciably since Randy Sue Coburn's forthright first novel, "Remembering Jody," came out seven years ago.

The Seattle writer began as a journalist and magazine freelancer, authored the screenplay for "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" more than a decade ago, and has taught writing at the University of Washington. Remember all that when you hear the middle-age veteran being heralded as a hot "new" novelist—a virtual certainty once this enjoyable work gets passed around a bit.

"Owl Island" is the life story of Phoebe, who lives on the working-artist side of a fictional Puget Sound island. She possesses a striated appeal that comes from 40 years of voracious reading, headstrong loving, a few oddball jobs and single-parenting a daughter who turns into a gainfully employed adult. Phoebe's weaknesses are pardonable: a bit more flirting than committing; sneaking cigarettes in those moments when everything hits the fan.

The real proof of Phoebe's appeal, though, is the pang one feels when the last page of her story has been read. Who wouldn't miss spending time with this woman, with all her enviable complexities held together by blunt self-analysis: "If only she believed in astrology—then she could attribute her delusion to Neptune squares instead of her own thickheadedness. Here she was, sitting on a stump and feeling herself to be its intellectual inferior."

Coburn's broad brush comes out for painting the '60s-counterculture influences of Phoebe's Seattle youth, growing up as the musical, headstrong only child of liberal professors. She inks in the small things that fix the picture firmly, such as the always-humming portable plastic radio in a girlhood bedroom; the momentous decision to flaunt one's deliberately unshaved teenage legs and Indian-print skirt along The Ave.

This movement between macro-micro views continues throughout the book. A backdrop of creeping 1990s Northwest hipness fueled by a boom economy is cleverly wrought with accurate touches. (The sputtering "Dijon-mustard-colored Volvo" driven by Phoebe's daughter, Laurienne, stays parked outside the scientific-software hell where the likable young technoid spends her waking hours.) A battle over rising island property values offers fine opportunities for Coburn's sly characterizations of yuppie excess.

The chief means in "Owl Island" for moving between past and present, big view and small, is, not surprisingly, a man. Phoebe's first love, an iconoclastic filmmaker, drops back into her now-settled life, forcing her to revisit old decisions, both wise and wildly unwise, and stirs up the lives of those dearest to her. Aside from the odd scene that is too contrived—a paternity mystery; the moment in which Phoebe confronts her old love after years apart—this book's plot has legs every bit as good as those of its heroine.

Coburn's rendering of Phoebe's life examines the far-reaching effects of generational choices; we listen to the same music that played in our mothers' heads in wholly new ways down the line. "Owl Island" is a story that moves along like good jazz: smooth until it surprises, then smooth again.

-- KIMBERLY MARLOWE HARTNETT




Kirkus Review
April 01, 2006

Coburn's beautifully realized second novel is a perceptive assessment of what women do in love.

Beautiful, strong-willed Phoebe, owner of a fish-net company, lives an agreeable life on a Puget Sound island. Her daughter Laurienne works in Seattle writing computer code, and artist Ivan, long-time friend, now lover, lives a few houses down the road. A satisfying existence, but over the course of the novel, Phoebe begins to realize hers has been a guarded life since her affair with Whit Traynor decades ago. And the reason for this fresh evaluation: A new neighbor has moved in, the now-famous director Whitney Traynor, with young wife Jasmine in tow. His appearance sends Phoebe reeling back to her enshrined memories of their relationship, the watershed moment of Phoebe's life. As a precocious teenager in 1960s Seattle, Phoebe became entranced by a local radio deejay, the charismatic Whit, who seemed to be speaking directly to Phoebe. She wrote him smart, seductive letters, filled with whimsy and innuendo, and he replied in turn, the two never meeting until Phoebe turned 18. Phoebe proudly worked on Whit's first feature film (suitably about artist's muse Kiki de Montparnasse), and while he credits Phoebe for inspiration, she did much of the work. When the two split up—a messy affair of cheating and rebound romances—Phoebe is pregnant and unsure if Whit is the father. Coburn smartly reveals only the Whit that young Phoebe sees—stylish, brilliantly idiosyncratic and in love. Not until later does middle-aged Phoebe (and the reader) perceive an altogether different Whit, unprotected by the flush of youth. Now Phoebe guardedly hopes that Whit is still in love with her. Why would he move to the island? Why would he call Jasmine a replacement Phoebe? And who else but Whit could have sent her all those magical gifts—a handful of rubies, a hummingbird's nest—through the years? This sad fantasy of true love reunited soon gives way to Phoebe gaining some hard-earned insight about her own willingness to hide in someone's shadow.

A richly conceived portrait of memory and identity .




The Eugene Weekly

Seattle author Randy Sue Coburn's second novel is a wonderful read for a damp, mellow Oregon fall. Its Puget Sound setting is lushly depicted, familiar in the way that the Pacific Northwest can all feel familiar, but strange and new from the viewpoint of Phoebe Allen, a fortyish single mother (of a 22- year-old programmer) whose past catches up to her over the course of a year. As Phoebe revisits her counterculture teenage years and the dissolution of what she thought was her one great love, Coburn traces a line of secrets and love, of uncertain communication and the slight but distinct influence of fairy tales.

But though Phoebe carries Owl Island's central narrative, the people in her orbit are drawn with equal care. The depth of research required to paint each person with such clarity is deftly handled; from writing screenplays (which Coburn has written herself) to netmaking to being a young hippie in Eugene to computer programming to astrology, Coburn's characters live rich, full lives.

These characters' threads weave in and out of Phoebe's story as she drifts back to the time when she fell in love with a DJ named Whit and acted as his muse. In the present, Whit's reappearance on the titular island has thrown Phoebe's comfortable, community-focused life into interior upheaval. Phoebe's trek through the past fills in her story, as well as that of her mother and daughter, but remembering mostly serves to bring her present into sharp clarity. Coburn is a smart, observant chronicler of human behavior, attuned to the flaws of well-intentioned people and well aware of how mistakes are rarely easy to learn from, even when the learning is vital for one's mental well-being. Owl Island meanders through decades in a way that ties together each person's then and now, creating complete, complex people whose rainy, lovely territory, interior and exterior, becomes a place you won't want to leave; this is a book for dark mornings with warm coffee, as comforting and sharp as cold sand under your toes.

-- MOLLY TEMPLETON




The Hartford Courant
June 11, 2006

Lives, Love Perturbed By Past

Small world. Small, messy, knotty, complicated, whirling-in-upon-itself world, Phoebe Allen might well think, as her Owl Island life turns totally upside down with the unexpected return of a love from a distant, painful time. Of all the gin joints ..

Moving to Owl Island, Whit Traynor carries with him memories, seasoned bitterness and betrayal never resolved. Seedily glamorous still, the movie director's re-emergence shoulders open recollections of soured infatuations that have never quite been extinguished in Phoebe's should-know-better heart.

In the deft hands of Seattle novelist Randy Sue Coburn, this unraveling and re-raveling yarn is a rich story of human intersections, of secrets and family mysteries, scars and hope, lies, narcissism and love, selfishness and selflessness.

It is a tale of the widowed Phoebe and her daughter carving out lives of impressive accomplishment, warm and human-size stature within their communities. But always, there is a sense of incompleteness, of family stories never quite entirely told and dots unconnected, a cluttered past always hovering over their fragile stability.

Coburn - author of "Remembering Jody" and the screenplay for the film "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," among others - moves a complex story with ease and loving attention to detail, mood and the senses.

Misunderstandings, trepidations and the irresistible power of the past threaten to swamp all. "Owl Island" comfortably collects artists, Puget Sound fisher-folk and the eccentrics that accumulate whenever more than a handful settle together. But the island's balances are threatened mightily with Traynor's arrival, new young wife in hand.

Decades of rough-edged memories, some wistful yet others angry, inadvertently travel with him, and in his presence new, perilous complications emerge. Long-shut doors are reopened, and through them march memories and mysteries demanding to be mastered, lest all be poisoned.

Even though the acidity of her earlier, doomed personal and creative affair with Whit is still bitter in her spirit, Phoebe is drawn back toward the fantasy of a true love that was never true and seldom love at all and that is nearly menacing in its inexorability. And a rich amalgam of family secrets are exposed.

Ruled by patterns - webs, star charts, nets and history's unwaveringly defining, though not always clear longitudes and latitudes - the weaving of lives and tales gone by with those that are unfolding today is Coburn's graceful gift.

This is an engaging, neatly paced story convincingly told. A world of strength and secrets, love and purpose, "Owl Island" is a fascinating place.

By DENIS HORGAN




Curled up with a Good Book

In Owl Island, a quiet domestic tale of lost love and secrets better left unsaid, author Randy Sue Coburn demonstrates that you can never escape your past, even if you might want to. Forty-something Phoebe Allen has spent most of her life growing up on the bucolic and picturesque hamlet of Owl Island, about seventy miles north of Seattle.

Phoebe manages a business that weaves nets for the local fisherman and has spent much of her adult life raising her daughter, Laurienne - now in her early twenties - after the untimely death of her musician husband, Mitchell, in a car accident several years ago.

As the novel opens, Phoebe is preparing for a barbecue, but has no idea how this event will change everything. She suddenly learns from a neighbor that maverick independent film director Whitney Traynor, along with his glamorous new wife, has just bought a luxury home right up the road.

Phoebe receives this news with a strange mixture of devastation, regret and anticipation. Phoebe and Whitney were once star-crossed lovers. In the early 1970s, Phoebe worked as a writer on one of Whitney's early independent films about Kiki de Montparnasse - a nightclub singer, actress, model and painter who helped define and liberate the culture of Paris in the 1920s - but she never received a full screenplay credit. Their eventual separation was bitter and acrimonious, a chapter of Phoebe's life she'd obviously prefer to forget but that was never fully closed.

Naturally Whitney's unexpected arrival has reopened old wounds and a past Phoebe wishes to keep secret for myriad reasons. But an expanding band of invisible energy steadily pulls her back, and she begins to reminiscence about those early carefree days when they first met and he was "her dream Whit."

Phoebe grew up listening to Whit's radio show, and their relationship gradually bourgeoned due to a series of complicated and romantic letters. She was his "fairy girl, the girl alive to mysteries." Her attraction to him was mostly internal, based on his striking wit and intelligence. They become lovers, but Whit - the stubborn egotist driven by an incessant desire to make great movies - was unwilling to invest emotionally in Phoebe.

Now the great love of her life has come back, and Phoebe has a lover in the form of local artist Ivan, who can't quite nail the origins of Phoebe's wariness. Although he knows about Whit, he's unwilling to watch on the sidelines while Phoebe reconnects with a man whom he sees as detrimental to her life.

The arrival of Whit delivers a blinding one-two punch for Phoebe, resurrecting first the thrill stirred by his arrival, then by the anguish of losing all that love. His appearance is also tempered by a shocking revelation - there is a slim chance that Whit could be Laurienne's father, and this admission causes a rift between mother and daughter.

In beautifully wrought prose, Coburn constantly alternates between 1970s and Phoebe's backstory to 1996 where the present story is set, carefully laying out Phoebe's case for finding love again. The author also manages to bring the small, cherished community of Owl Island to life - this collection of outsiders, artists, and political refugees drawn by the area's natural beauty and low cost of living.

Whit continues to be mysterious, charming and hypnotic, yet his final comeuppance is painful. Luckily Phoebe manages come out of it all with her moral supremacy largely intact. Yet Whit continues to be like "a ghost net" in Phoebe's life. The only way she can ultimately free herself from him is to demand answers, set boundaries, and assume an authority over her life that is perhaps greater than Whit's.

By Michael Leonard


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