“The Book of the Mandolin Player”
By Anne Britting Oleson
Bedazzled Ink Publishing Co., Fairfield, California, 2016
280 pages, paperback, $15.95
In Anne Britting Oleson’s recent novel, “The Book of the Mandolin Player,” a lot of people are absent.
Meg Cross, about 50, is a retired teacher and the guardian of her young niece, Maeve, who came into Meg’s care when one of Meg’s brothers, Arthur, left Maeve off following her birth by a mother who also, like Arthur, went absent. Meg has a heart condition, which turns out to be literally and figuratively tricky.
Central to Meg’s life is her young niece Maeve. Mature well beyond her years, an odd duck at home and at school, she’s so self-possessed that everyone pays close attention to her — she is, we also learn, more or less psychic. “He’s coming,” she repeats vatically in the book’s early chapters to Meg’s bewilderment. “He” turns out to be another of Meg’s brothers, Peter, who has been absent for a long time — but shows up unannounced for Thanksgiving.
Apart from Maeve’s understated psychic ability, the story is firmly grounded in Meg’s everyday life in tiny Damascus, Maine. Kitchen scenes overflow the pages. All the women in Meg’s mostly female circle of friends and family are cooking seemingly non-stop. Meg early on goes to the local grammar school for a conference with Maeve’s irritatingly officious teacher. Maeve wants to play the mandolin, and it turns out the town pastor, Will Ledbetter, gives lessons, so that gets arranged.
Soon it’s clear that the book’s title is steering us to the understanding that this is essentially a love story. Meg conceives a crush on Will, which causes her no end of internal conflict because following her own previous marriage (to another man now absent from her life), she guards her emotional spaces jealously and fretfully. After a while it’s hard to think that Maeve is not only oracular in word but causative in spirit. It’s after all the arranging of the mandolin lessons that triggers the events of the brewing love affair.
Two critical events launch the plot proper. One is the re-appearance of the long-lost brother Peter, who is a sub-big-time actor in Hollywood. Even when he returns — to the mixed feelings of the family — he’s still emotionally absent from the family. It turns out he’s being followed by a tabloid journalist and also by his famous-actress girlfriend, two strands that set up further conflicts involving some lurking violence and a pregnancy around which Meg and the other women rally. Most of them, anyway. The second critical event — well, not wanting to give things away, I won’t specify it. Suffice it to say that it involves, this time, an absence on the part of Meg herself.
In a way “The Book of the Mandolin Player” is the story of Meg’s struggles to fill all these different voids, including the absence of the love affair that the thematic material turns on. It’s an interesting story, with characters, places and emotional atmosphere strongly reminiscent of those in Jennifer Wixson’s Sovereign novels — small-town Mainers, well-educated, wry-humored, grappling with problems of life, love and the pursuit of people who are chronically not there. Wixson has characterized her novels as “chick lit,” though the phrase may belie complexities in her writing and Oleson’s to some extent. If you have time to spend, this book is worth checking out.
Anne Britting Oleson, of Dixmont, just up the road from Wixson, in Troy, is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, “The Church of St. Materiana” and “The Beauty of It.” A third, “Counting the Days,” is in the pipeline from Pink. Girl. Ink. Press.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].