Book review: In the fictional “Oslo, Maine,” a musical couple from afar clashes with locals
There is a whole genre of “real Maine” novels out there, and I appreciate and cherish books that explore that familiar territory. Two that I particularly like are “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” by Carolyn Chute and “Maddy’s Song” by Margaret Dickson. Both are ambitious, honest and engaging. Both bring real truths and insights.
Based on the cover’s glowing blurbs and the upbeat cover itself (the image is 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,” Marcia Butler’s latest novel and one that falls squarely into the “real Maine” category. Plus, the premise of a moose and of her calf entering a Maine town seemed quirky and fresh.
Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters turned out to be likable or believable. The book also didn’t feel recognizable in Maine, and Oslo itself never materializes so much, even though, according to a biography on her website, Butler, a former musician, spent many years performing in a chamber music festival in central Maine. . (She seems to have an ear for dialogue.) But as for the town in the title, it seemed to be little more than a physical slaughterhouse for its animal characters and psychological for its humans.
The protagonists of “Oslo, Maine”, Sandra and Jim Kimbrough, are a talented couple “from afar” with a boatload of First World problems. Both are musicians. Early in the novel, Jim failed a very important audition, and Sandra, unbeknownst to Jim, sabotaged her own audition.
“Sandra had never, ever wanted orchestral work,” writes Butler. “That had been Jim’s ambitions for both of them. So, having made her mistake, she abruptly stopped playing mid-sentence and immediately felt relief, almost joy. When she walked past the dismayed overseer, another foreboding thought came: If she won the job, the weight of their disparate accomplishments — their talents — would ultimately doom their marriage.
Six months after their disastrous auditions, Sandra tricked her husband into buying land, without seeing him, in Oslo, Maine. The Kimbroughs go freelance in Maine, where their lives intersect with that of a French-Canadian family that seems almost Third World. It’s the Yuppies versus the Nativists. Clearly, the dice are loaded.
The father of the French-Canadian family, Claude Roy, is a brutal man and owner of a roadside slaughterhouse. His wife, Céline, is a hopeless drug addict and their son, Pierre, has brain damage. Before long, Sandra is giving her son music lessons and finds him brilliant and communicative in his own way (the best thing in the book). Meanwhile, Jim reconnects with Celine. Although she seemed to become more attractive as the novel progressed, this reader was very skeptical that two such different characters would ever meet. The moose is captured, but Claude kills his calf. We then meet new characters, and new complications ensue.
People, animals and stories collide. Then, in a 2½-page epilogue, Butler neatly ties it all together. Consider:
“Jim left the symphony and Sandra sold her cello to pay off all their debts. Now without an instrument, Jim devoted himself to his true passion in life: solar panels. In one year, he developed a system that revolutionized the panel industry solar cells. He sells the invention to a start-up, bringing in a hefty sum. While Jim settles down as a full-time stay-at-home husband…”
This shortcut felt 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 Maine Historical Society story and lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.
Please check your email to confirm and complete your registration.
Use the form below to reset your password. After you submit your account email, we’ll send you an email with a reset code.
Bedside table: the writer Anthony Doerr does it again