Title: The Invisible Husband of Frick Island
Author: Colleen Oakley
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Sometimes all you need is one person to really see you.
Piper Parrish’s life on Frick Island—a tiny, remote town smack in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay—is nearly perfect. Well, aside from one pesky detail: Her darling husband, Tom, is dead. When Tom’s crab boat capsized and his body wasn’t recovered, Piper, rocked to the core, did a most peculiar thing: carried on as if her husband was not only still alive, but right there beside her, cooking him breakfast, walking him to the docks each morning, meeting him for their standard Friday night dinner date at the One-Eyed Crab. And what were the townspeople to do but go along with their beloved widowed Piper?
Anders Caldwell’s career is not going well. A young ambitious journalist, he’d rather hoped he’d be a national award-winning podcaster by now, rather than writing fluff pieces for a small town newspaper. But when he gets an assignment to travel to the remote Frick Island and cover their boring annual Cake Walk fundraiser, he stumbles upon a much more fascinating tale: an entire town pretending to see and interact with a man who does not actually exist. Determined it’s the career-making story he’s been needing for his podcast, Anders returns to the island to begin covert research and spend more time with the enigmatic Piper—but he has no idea out of all the lives he’s about to upend, it’s his that will change the most.
Frick Island, home to under 100 people, is a charming little community in Chesapeake Bay, where everyone knows everyone, tourists are tolerated, fishing and crabbing is the main livelihood, and a proposed new cell phone tower is the scandal of the decade. Frick Island is also dying — climate change has affected the sea life, resulting in smaller catches and dire times for the fishermen, and rising sea levels mean that the island itself will be uninhabitable in the not-so-distant future.
When Anders visits Frick Island on assignment, he’s startled by how foreign it all feels, from the unreliable ferry schedule to the lack of cell and internet service, to the peace and satisfaction (and oddity) of the people he encounters. When he sees a young woman — who strikes him as the most beautiful person he’s ever seen — sitting alone at a table for two at the island’s only restaurant, he gets up the nerve to ask her to join him… and is confused when she informs him that, as he can plainly see, she’s having dinner with her husband!
Piper and her husband have been together since their teens. Married for one year, they’re happy and in love, content with their small cottage and quiet life. When Tom’s boat is lost in a storm, Piper hides herself away in grief for two weeks, finally reemerging full of smiles, talking about Tom as if he were still present. The townspeople are confused, but end up supporting Piper by playing along — so when she walks Tom down to the docks each day, they all call out greetings to Tom as if they can see him too.
Anders has struggled to find his audience as a podcaster, but once he stumbles across Piper’s story, he’s inspired. He digs into the island’s history, researches post-bereavement coping strategies, and starts visiting the island week after week — ostensibly to learn more about climate change’s impact on the people of Frick Island, but in reality, looking to understand how an entire community could pretend to see a man who isn’t there. Anders begins a new podcast series, What the Frick, focusing on Piper’s story, then expanding the series to include all the stories of Frick Island that he can find. And it’s a hit — suddenly, his listens are in the thousands.
But as Anders spends more time on Frick Island, he’s also building connections to the people there and developing feelings for Piper. Soon, he realizes that with the cell tower nearing completion, the people of Frick Island will have access to his podcast, and they aren’t likely to be happy with him. He’s falling in love with Piper, but knows that she’ll feel horribly betrayed by his sharing of her story without her permission. He’s treated Piper, and the entire island, as an oddity to be marveled over, and he knows that unless he deletes the podcast completely, there’s going to be hell to pay.
In many ways, I was charmed by The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, although Anders’s behavior is hard to tolerate. He’s depicted as kind of gawky and young and afraid of everything, developing self-confidence and connections to others through his continued visits to Frick Island and his growing involvement with the community. He should have known all along how his podcast would be viewed if the islanders ever heard it. There’s no getting around that he crossed a huge line by sharing such personal stories without permission — even if there’s a benefit to the island in the end (which is a very rosy-eyed solution to the problem).
Piper’s behavior too is problematic, once we learn more later in the book. There are a lot of false leads about what’s truly going on, and the answers felt a little flat and unsatisfying. I tried to give both Piper and Anders some benefit of the doubt because of their ages (early 20s), but even so, their actions are both questionable. At least with Piper, she’s managing her grief and loss the best way she can, but there’s a lack of honesty about certain elements that made me like her a little bit less.
I was entertained by The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, but because of my issues with the main characters’ behavior, I couldn’t quite embrace the story fully. The island community is charming, if a little too much the typical fictional cute/quirky small town filled with cute/quirky/weird-but-memorable people. I did like that the book ends not with a swooning romantic HEA, but with a positive outcome for the characters and the island’s future — and I especially liked Piper’s next steps at the end, which (without saying too much) is the best possible course of action for her.
The Invisible Husband of Frick Island would make a good choice for a summer read — it’s light and entertaining, despite the plot points I couldn’t quite get behind.