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.
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.