saving phoebe murrow book coverReviewed by Kate Schefer

I’m going to preface this review by admitting that I went into this completely blind. I didn’t read other reviews, or author bios, or even a synopsis. I picked the book because the cover intrigued me—yep, you heard me. I judge books by their covers. I should’ve looked more closely, though, because the tagline at the top hinted at the plot. “Have you ever tried to be the perfect mother?”

Saving Phoebe Murrow is Herta Feely’s debut novel about the severe impacts that cyber-bullying can have on its victims, perpetrators, relatives, and entire communities. Set in 2008 and inspired by the real 2006 case of Megan Meier (the details of which may act as spoilers, so be warned), the book is told from multiple perspectives, but focuses on three main characters.

Phoebe just started high school, and is looking forward to reinventing herself after a difficult eighth grade year that featured a lot of bullying, which led to her self-harming. But she just can’t shake the past, and almost immediately struggles to balance her friend and family dynamics. As a character, she was sympathetic, but I don’t think was given enough credit for being a good kid.

Isabel Winthrop is a successful lawyer, wife, and mother of two, who is convinced that her teenage daughter is infinitely troubled, and therefore needs constant supervision and intervention. Having never been a mother myself, I can’t speak to the validity of Isabel’s concerns, but I do think she tends to overreact to very common issues.

Sandy Littleton is Jessie’s mom, and one of Isabel’s enemies throughout the story, for a number of reasons. Sandy’s main problem is that she isn’t like the other moms of Georgetown Academy, who are primarily lawyers or doctors or congresswomen. She sells diet supplements part-time, and the other half of her time is spent shopping or flirting with other men. It’s at a parents’ party the first week of the year that she meets and woos Ron Murrow, mainly to get back at Isabel, who has never reacted kindly to Sandy’s invitations to socialize. So begins Sandy’s revenge on Isabel, which targets two of her relatives.

The perspective shifts throughout the narrative, sometimes including stories from Ron, who seems to be caught between all three women and whose thoughts invariably turn to sex. It was disappointing to see him portrayed as one-dimensional, serving only two purposes throughout: the voice of reason against Isabel’s parenting techniques, and an object of sexual manipulation for Sandy. He was supposedly a White House reporter in the time of the historic 2008 election, yet he spent more time cavorting with Sandy than doing any real work.

In general you could say that the characters, as well as the plot, were lacking depth and nuance, which is a huge shame. Bullying, and cyber-bullying in particular, are difficult but relevant topics, so I commend Feely for tackling them in this book. However, they continue to be portrayed as black-and-white issues, and not gray, which is precisely what makes them so difficult to deal with. A more useful text would be one that strives to examine all sides of the situation, instead of promoting a certain viewpoint.

The cyber-bullying incident stems from Phoebe’s budding relationship with a boy named Shane. Although they don’t know each other in person, he friended her on Facebook and claimed to be new to a neighboring area. They begin talking, and Phoebe is excited to see how an in-person relationship could bloom. But Shane leads a cyber-bullying attack in the wake of real-life incidents, which is exacerbated by the participation of her other “friends,” culminating in a suicide attempt by the fragile Phoebe. The final section of the book focuses on Isabel’s quest to find the person behind the fictional Shane and bring them to justice.

Again, this book tends to favor Isabel’s perspective, which I think does the story a great disservice, because she keeps her biases and opinions until the end. Come to think of it, not one character truly changes over the course of the book. Somehow, everyone is vindicated by the end, and that makes for the most unsatisfying ending, even if it technically wraps up neatly. In short, so much of this book didn’t make any sense, that it’s difficult to get any sort of lesson out of it, though it was obviously written to provide a moral—any book that comes with a discussion guide at the end is trying to teach you a lesson. In this case, it’s a lesson most people don’t need.

Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Herta Feely. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.