Books

Book review: In fictional ‘Oslo, Maine,’ a musical couple from away collides with the locals

There’s a whole genre of “real Maine” novels, and I enjoy and treasure books that explore that familiar territory. Two I especially like are Carolyn Chute’s “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” and Margaret Dickson’s “Maddy’s Song.” Both are far-reaching, honest and engaging. Both bring forth real truths and ideas.

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Based on the laudatory coverbs and the upbeat cover itself (the picture a spinoff of that famous road sign that lists distances to Norway, Denmark, Sweden, China, etc., all in Maine), I had high hopes for “Oslo, Maine ,” the latest novel by Marcia Butler and one that falls squarely into the “real Maine” category. Also, the premise of a moose and her calf walking into a Maine town sounded quirky and fresh.

Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters proved likable or believable. Nor did the book feel recognizably set in Maine, and Oslo itself never materializes as much of a place, even though, according to a bio on her website, Butler, a former musician, spent many years performing at a chamber music festival in Central Maine . (She does appear to have an ear for dialogue.) But as for the town in the title, it seemed to be little more than a physical abattoir for its animal characters and a psychological one for its humans.

The protagonists of “Oslo, Maine,” Sandra and Jim Kimbrough, are a talented couple “from away” with a boatload of First World problems. Both are musicians. At the start of the novel, Jim has failed an all-important audition, and Sandra, unbeknownst to Jim, has sabotaged her own audition.

“Sandra had never, ever, wanted an orchestra job,” Butler writes. “This had been Jim’s ambitions for them both. So, having made her mistake, she abruptly stopped playing mid-phrase and immediately felt relief, almost joy. When she walked past the aghast proctor, another prescient thought came: If she won the position, the weight of their disparate accomplishments — their talents — would ultimately doom their marriage.”

Six months after their disastrous auditions, Sandra has tricked her husband into buying land, sight unseen, in Oslo, Maine. The Kimbroughs scurry off to freelance in Maine, where their lives intersect with those of a French Canadian family who seems almost Third World. It’s the Yuppies vs. the nativist. Clearly, the die are loaded.

The father of the French-Canadian family, Claude Roy, is a brutal man and the owner of a roadside slaughterhouse. His wife, Celine, is a hopeless drug addict and their son, Pierre, is brain damaged. In short order, Sandra gives the son music lessons and finds him brilliant and communicative in his own unique way (the best thing in the book). Meanwhile, Jim takes up with Celine. Though she seems to get more attractive as the novel goes on, this reader was highly skeptical two such different characters would ever take up with one another. The moose is captured, but Claude kills her calf. We then meet new characters, and new complications ensue.

People, animals and backstories collide. Then in a 2½-page epilogue, Butler neatly ties everything up. Consider:

“Jim quits the symphony and Sandra sells his cello to payoff all their debts. Now without an instrument, Jim devotes himself to his real passion in life: solar panels. Within a year, he develops a system that revolutionizes the solar-panel industry. He sells the invention to a start-up, netting a hefty sum. As Jim settles in as a full-time househusband…”

This foreshortening seemed lazy, and as I finished the book, I felt cheated.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books,” He is working on a history of the Maine Historical Society, and lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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