Spotlight : Randy Sue Coburn's A Better View of Paradise

Monday, August 24, 2009

About the Book:

Thirty-six-year-old Stevie Pollack has come into her own as a celebrated landscape architect. Her designs, famed for their evocative natural beauty, reflect her upbringing amid the splendor of Hawai‘i. But when critics blast her latest efforts and her boyfriend abruptly ends their relationship, Stevie seeks solace in her roots among the dazzling flowers, and comforting traditions of the islands and their calming waters. Still, in the back of her mind, Hawai‘i holds troubling memories of a childhood with Hank, her emotionally distant father, and a reserved British mother.

Despite her irascible father’s presence, the trip home promises Stevie a welcome departure from her trials on the mainland. But the shocking news that Hank is dying forces the pair’s reunion into high gear. As father and daughter attempt to rekindle their bond, Stevie discovers sides of Hank she never knew, including family secrets that have shaped their lives. And what started as a holiday escape for the beleaguered architect becomes a chance for transformation, one as exciting as it is uncertain. Inspired by her father’s insight, and energized by the attentions of an attractive local veterinarian, Stevie learns to surrender her inhibitions and seize the day.


Pele is far from Stevie’s mind on the warm September morning that her new garden is scheduled to open. For one thing, she’s a long way from Hawai‘i–in Chicago, a tough-guy city if ever there was one. And for another, she’s all grown up. Thirty-six years old. An age that, in her better moods, on her better days, seems in perfect balance. Eighteen years of living as somebody’s daughter, under parental control, followed by eighteen years of independence. By her reckoning, that means she ought to have a pretty fair shot at being her own person. A person who calls home a Brooklyn Heights floor-through apartment with eye-catching French flea market linens on the bed and well-used chef-grade cookware in the kitchen. A person with reliable friends and a regularly exercised passport. A professional person, too–one who is, to be exact, making her mark upon the land. What’s more, this person is determined not to let anything interfere with a day on which both she and the elaborate garden she designed are going to be celebrated. Not even the fact that somebody just dumped her. Especially not that.

When Stevie gets out of bed in her room at a small, European-style hotel on East Delaware Place, her head aches and her mouth is dry. She fights the urge to rush out and buy herself coffee, pastries, and a pack of the American Spirit cigarettes she still craves whenever something major goes wrong. Instead, she clips back her hair and puts on running clothes–an athletic bra engineered to immobilize C-cup breasts, loose-legged purple shorts, and a mustard-yellow T-shirt decorated with a big bunned wiener that reads:

Hot Dog! Johnny’s
Route 46
Butzville, N.J.

Soon she’s jogging along a lakeside path, red-faced already in this low late-summer sun, glad for the sweet-smelling freshwater breeze. Fog hugs the waterfront, the shoreline that is Stevie’s favorite thing about the city, and through the fog she catches glimpses that remind her of a veiled belly dancer, undulating against the Gold Coast’s rigid street grid. Land curves in and out, so sensuous, so seductive, it’s easy to imagine that only some supreme feminine force of nature could have shaped it. Stevie knows better.

Her research into all things Chicago has taught her that most of the shore, like the rest of the city, is man-made, an illusion created with ton upon ton of dumped landfill. “Shit,” Stevie hisses. Just thinking of dumped landfill is enough to bring her own dumping front and center again.

She’s told no one any details of the breakup. Not even Lorna, her best friend since college. Especially not Lorna. And that’s because she knows exactly what Lorna will say: “First words, Stevie. Let’s talk about first words.”

Lorna has a theory–annoyingly accurate by now–that every man, right off the bat, says something that reveals with astonishing precision what your relationship with him will be like. “And you’d pay attention, too,” Lorna contends, “if only you weren’t stone-deaf to anything but that sneaky devil with the romance-o-meter whispering in your ear. Telling you not who they are, but who you want them to be. So you miss what really matters. When some guy says ‘I don’t deserve you,’ listen up, Stevie. That guy is not flattering you. That guy is preaching the goddamn gospel.”

That guy was just Exhibit A. Over the years, Stevie has given Lorna ample additional evidence to prove her point, standouts being the lover who said “You are exactly the kind of woman I should fall for” (Stevie had failed to give proper emphasis to the word “should”) and another who claimed “You make my life so full” (soon enough, he’d sink back into depression).

What was the first important thing Brian had revealed? The words that, in the world according to Lorna, contained the tiny, tightly coiled kernels of their future–or, rather, their past. Nothing comes. It’s easier to recall how she met Brian than what tumbled out of his mouth after she did.

About the Author:

Randy Sue Coburn is a former newspaper reporter whose articles and essays have been published in numerous national magazines. She is the author of Owl Island and Remembering Jody, and her screenplays include Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the critically acclaimed Cannes Film Festival selection that received five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Screenplay. S1he lives in Seattle. You can visit Randy Sue Coburn’s website at

This Spotlight feature is part of the book's virtual tour, courtesyPump Up Your Book Promotion.

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