In her first novel, Queen of the Owls, Barbara Linn Probst’s main character, Elizabeth, is not only married to lawyer Ben (whose life has to be planned hour to hour) and the mother of their two children, she is also teaching art history and to earn her PhD, completing research on the paintings of artist, Georgia O’Keefe, the oeuvre O’Keefe completed during a stay in Hawaii.
Throughout the novel, Probst makes definitive references to O’Keefe’s work, a strong aspect of this Women’s Fiction novel, whose focus is the true awakening of a woman’s sexuality. In contrast to the paintings of flowers, their petals, receptacles and stamen, Elizabeth’s sex life is blunted, shaped by duty and sameness. This: “She’d been nudged half-awake by Ben’s erection against her butt.” This sentence pulled me right out of the story, until I realized I needed to understand why Elizabeth would put up with this. No words are exchanged. No kisses to celebrate this relationship: “Elizabeth had trained herself not to watch the calendar too closely because that made it worse. Still, an actual erection…was too precious to waste.” So they have what might be called sex. “Not memorable, but duly accomplished.” DAMN!
The compliant Elizabeth then allows Ben to sleep a little longer, though she’s making his coffee, getting a shower and of course it is she who will be taking care of their two children, Daniel and Katie—making sure she helps them dress and eat, and gets them to the sitter so she is on time for an 8:30 meeting about her PhD dissertation.
Is this why Probst has entitled her novel, Queen of the Owls? Another reviewer also asked about the title. An engaging title can lead you into a work, echo engaging themes throughout. Owls might be known for their intelligence; owlish behavior might make us think of Elizabeth in a library, studying the works of Georgia O’Keefe, while her peers are out having a beers in a bar just off campus. Because others have lives, while Elizabeth has chores, one after the other, which she does with purpose and grace. But then: the meeting with Harold Lindstrom, her dissertation advisor.
He zeroes right in, suggesting Elizabeth has not presented and proved a new argument regarding the paintings of O’Keefe. The reader might decide that Elizabeth’s struggles to be a wife and mother are conflicting with her being an OWL, even a queen of the owls, one who stays awake at night, casting her eyes on readings and reprints of O’Keefe’s work. If Elizabeth denies herself free time to do anything but child care and research, she just might succeed in becoming Queen of the Owls.
In the novel, Elizabeth does succeed, but only because of an awakening that Probst highlights, a change, a movement in O’Keefe’s work toward beauty and freedom, the power of the female body—metaphors and symbols that Elizabeth begins to experience in her own life, as well as in O’Keefe’s art: “Hawaii itself…lush, fertile, alive. O’Keefe had never seen anything like it…the abundance, the intensity of color and sensation…”
Contrast such feelings that O’Keefe’s paintings arouse in Elizabeth with the sex she recently had with Ben. Probst is building a story, one echoing that of many women, women who fear forging ahead to achieve their goals, who desire to move beyond the infusion of the male ego that comments or complains about EVERYTHING they do.
Thus we experience Elizabeth, arguing her thesis with her advisor: “O’Keefe’s White Bird of Paradise, one of the Hawaii paintings. You never see it listed as one of O’Keefe’s major pieces, but it’s where she brings together, petals and bones, life and death.” And then Lindstrom, the dissertation advisor: “Do you give your husband a hard time too?” A patronizing, dismissive male, one Probst might have created from her own academic experience.
But it is the foil character to husband Ben, to advisor Lindstrom—it is Richard who Elizabeth thinks of at that moment. “She thought of the way Richard had looked at her, in the Tai Chi class…” (Yes, we women are allowed to still look around.)
Then later on, Elizabeth allows herself to ruminate: “Feminist art was supposed to mean art that provoked a dialogue between the viewer and the artwork, rejected the idea of art as static, challenged patriarchal notions of what was beautiful…You saw what you saw, if you looked…O’Keeffe had also said: I feel there is something un explored about women that only a woman can explore.”
Of course. Elizabeth’s eventual research goal, and Probst’s purpose in this novel, is to have the viewer awaken to the power of art, allow Elizabeth to realize the power of the female body, which in this novel she discovers through O’Keefe’s feminist florals, her flowers and stamen, her colors brooding from dark to light. And though many museum viewers stood before those same works talking about genitalia, Elizabeth knew there was something more, something deeper, something more excitingly feminine than a label.
THE SISTER ACT
Contrast is often good for character development. Thus, in the novel, when Elizabeth stops to visit with her only sibling, Andrea, she is reminded of the repeated statement of their mother: Everyone has different gifts. Coming early in the flow of the story, Probst is suggesting that Elizabeth, despite marriage, children, academics, has never truly been certain as to what her gifts are. Or it is because she has seen the flowering of her sister’s business as a hairstylist as something blocking her ability to value her own brilliance, the very different direction her life is taking her.
THE HERO FOR THE HEROINE
And there is Richard, the handsome man in her Tai Chi class, a photographer, who after some discussion is willing to replicate the work of Alfred Stieglitz, this famous photographer who admired O’Keefe and took pictures of her nude. In time, he convinces Elizabeth to actually take her clothes off, so that little by little, she is able to reproduce the poses of a naked O’Keefe, Richard snapping numerous shots, awakening a flowering, a desire for change in Elizabeth. That certainly might be the beginning of her becoming not only an owl, but the queen.
All novels work with contrasts, make the reader wonder what choices the MC will face, the eventual decisions she must make. Elizabeth, at first weighted down: husband, children, teaching, her own sense of needing to achieve, to stand out. But can she do all that, keep husband and family happy while satisfying the desires that O’Keefe’s art and nude photographs have aroused in her? Considering that owls are often quiet during the day, but then rise to great heights at night, filling the night skies with their hoots, drawing attention to what is often referred to as wisdom—in The Queen of Owls Probst must answer all those questions. Read this engaging novel to see if she does.