Alexandra Coutts moved to the Vineyard in her twenties. She had been a summer kid, had just finished her undergraduate and graduate studies at NYU, and was now looking for a quiet place to write a book. It’s a familiar tale, but this one has a more unique ending. She actually did finish that book, published it, and now, over a decade later, she has just published her fourth book, also written on the Vineyard.

Mrs. Coutts’s new book is called Young Widows Club, published by Farrar Straus Giroux (FSG). It’s a young adult novel and the protagonist is indeed a young widow. A very young widow. The character Tamsen Baird is just 17 years old and would still be in high school if she hadn’t dropped out to marry her 19-year-old musician boyfriend, who in the first two pages dies, just six weeks after their marriage.

If that sounds like a dark tale, consider the author’s previous novel, Tumble and Fall, which told the story of three Vineyard teenagers during the five days leading up to the end of the world by asteroid collision. But her books are by no means downers. The characters are full of life, real life, and because they are teenagers they don’t meet hardship with the traditional weepy playbook. Consider these opening lines in Chapter One of Young Widows Club:

On the morning of your husband’s funeral, under no circumstances should you be:

a. Hungover

b. Cocooned in a sleeping bag that smells like Jolly Ranchers.

c. Seventeen.

d. All of the above.

Mrs. Coutts, 33, is affiliated with a company called Alloy Entertainment which she was introduced to soon after graduate school. She had majored in theatre and at the time was working as an assistant to Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame. She admits she was not a good assistant.

“I just wanted to basically look over his shoulder all day while he was writing,” she said. “But what he really needed was his dry cleaning picked up so he could write without distraction.”

Alloy Entertainment is a book packaging company for young adult novels. It has a stable of writers it works with and most often it comes up with the ideas for its books. Mrs. Coutts sent them a sample of her writing and they pitched her the idea of writing a book set in San Francisco about a magical dress. That book became Wish, which was followed up by Wishful Thinking, where the dress had relocated to Martha’s Vineyard. Both of those books were written under her maiden name, Alexandra Bullen.

Tumble and Fall and the end of the world was definitely a departure from magical dresses, and it marked the beginning of her moving away from the world of pure fantasy and digging into the muck of real life. She was married now and starting a family, a recipe for reality if there ever was one.

“I wrote it while pregnant with Evie and just after she was born,” she said, referring to her first child, now age three. “And that was really hard because it was about the end of the world when I was having a kid.”

Young Widows Club was written while pregnant with her second child, Wiley, who recently turned one. This book is based much more on real life and the idea was completely her own, and therefore an important stepping stone in Mrs. Coutts’s evolution as a writer. She wasn’t a young widow, and is happily married to Islander Eliot Coutts, but her first boyfriend did die very young and that experience stayed with her over the years.

“We went to prom together, he was my junior year boyfriend,” she said. “He had a different girlfriend when he died in a car accident and when I came home for his funeral I remember seeing her and feeling how devastating that must be. I was just two years out of high school then, but thinking how crazy that would be to have to deal with in high school. So that was the kernel of the relationship story.”

In the book, the main character Tamsen is shattered by her loss and at first wanders around in a fog. But then she gets into trouble, a minor trespassing offense, and as a result the judge forces her to go back to high school and return to the custody of her parents. This sets the book in motion for Tamsen to reclaim her life and, in a way, her youth. Tamsen’s mother died when she was very young and her father recently remarried. If this sounds like too much darkness closing in and a bit too cruel a fate for the main character, to kill off mom and a new husband, it actually makes the plot flow. The loss of her mother at a young age makes Tamsen’s decision to get married at the age of 17 and get out of the house seem not just plausible but inevitable. Tamsen was forced to grow up fast and she is just acting true to form.

Although the events are much different than her life, Mrs. Coutts said that Tamsen is a lot like her, and that on one level writing the book was a letter to her younger self.

“I got to make her do all the things I wish I had done,” she said. “To become more engaged. Nobody ever forced me to be. I often wish someone had said to me in high school, slow down, you don’t have to hurry to get out of here so fast, because that was the way I was. I just wanted to be done with it. I got out okay, but it would have been nice to understand there was some benefit to that life.”

Mrs. Coutts said she feels a responsibility to the audience she writes for, teenagers mostly, and how pivotal a time period that is in life. And it’s from this perspective that Young Widows Club feels much more hopeful than dark or even sad. Tamsen may be dealing with extreme circumstances but navigating the landscape of growing up and becoming your own person is always extreme in its own right. Over the course of the book Tamsen reconnects with her childhood best friend, eventually does graduate from high school and in one of the books most tender passages, she comes to terms with her father’s remarrying after her mother’s death.

She may not have been my choice, or in any way a replacement for Mom, but nobody would have been. And that’s not what he needed. What he needed was a reason to keep going. A reminder that life is long and full, no matter how you fill it.

Mrs. Coutts said the novel took a long time to write as the plot shifted and deepened. She also did a lot of research into support groups, and the book is loosely structured around a support group for young widows (most are actually more middle-aged except for Tamsen and one young man who becomes a potential love interest). Each meeting addresses a different stage of the grief cycle. The group is run by a well meaning yet eccentric woman, which provides comedic opportunities as well as heartfelt ones.

“I wanted a support group that didn’t feel mopey or too down,” she said. “I did a lot of research on the Kübler-Ross stuff. It was interesting finding less obvious ways to explore that.”

One of the less obvious ways of portraying a group like this was having them visit a Chilmark Flea Market type of place to address the bargaining stage. The market is not referred to by name, nor is the setting of the book ever explicitly referred to as Martha’s Vineyard. But with its references to housing shortages and the difficulty of catching a ferry or preparing to leave for college, the Island is definitely a character too.

Mrs. Coutts, who is also editor of The Vine, a monthly Gazette publication, said she works best under deadlines. The one for her next book is quickly approaching in the next few weeks. That book will be published this spring, again set on the Vineyard. All she can say at the moment is that it will be about a pop star trying to get away from fame by hiding out on the Island.

That doesn’t sound dark at all, unless it’s set in February.