“Tapiser,” the latest book by Anne Britting Oleson, who lives in the mountains of central Maine, begins with two stern summons. The first occurs in 1502 in Britain, the second in Connecticut today. The mystery at the heart of the novel lies between the two.

Protagonist Emily Harris has recently returned to Connecticut after being thrown off by her husband for another woman. She has already found herself a small apartment and a part-time job as a librarian at the local community college when her mother calls: Visit your grandmother, she orders her daughter. Emily, who has been avoiding both women, reluctantly agrees.

At work a strange – but strangely familiar – male asks for her help uploading his CV. Emily eyes his name on the document: Carwyn N. Grey. No one she knows. Before he leaves the library, he invites her out, saying he knows she is about to finish her shift. Though she is suspicious, she accepts. Over coffee, he admits that he’s been observing her, and that he’s interested. She learns that she knew him growing up, when he went by Nick and cut grass and did odd jobs for her grandmother.

When Emily visits her grandmother Eleanor, the older woman is blunt, telling Emily that her ex-husband was “all wrong” for her. She asks Emily why she returned home. “To regroup,” Emily replies. “To find out who I really am.”

“’Oh, no,’” her grandmother responds. “You are, to put it plainly, the queen of your own destiny. It only remains for you to realize that destiny.”

Rather than reassuring Emily, the words “sent a chill through me.”

Emily’s mother, Elaine, warns her to be careful of her grandmother. It emerges that Eleanor disapproved of Elaine’s choice of husband, too.

Eleanor is briefly admitted to the hospital for atrial fibrillation. When she returns home, she summons Emily. “It’s time,” she tells her. She directs her granddaughter to retrieve a wooden chest and a key from upstairs. When Emily opens the chest, she discovers a small square of exquisite tapestry that is clearly very old.

“The foreground featured a cherub, wings unfurled, but shaded ever so finely to suggest motion of flight,” Oleson writes. “A halo crowned its head, unnecessary with the blaze of reddish-gold hair. Surrounding the figure were tiny roses of red, of pink, of white, among finely figured and veined leaves.”

The tapestry, Eleanor explains, dates back to the Renaissance and has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. It was made by a woman at a time when female tapisers were almost unheard of. Eleanor directs Emily to take a magnifying glass to view what appears to be a small black stitch. It is actually miniscule text, “Creavit ex Beatrice … Made by Beatrice.”

Emily stares at the little cherub with unruly red-gold hair – just like hers.

Days later, she is summoned to the hospital again, her grandmother having suffered a stroke. Barely able to speak, Eleanor whispers to her granddaughter, “It’s yours now … Responsibility … Yours.”

As the pages pile up in “Tapiser,” so do the mysteries, which only add to the characters’ appeal. Why, for instance, did her grandmother take the surname of Ludlow, borrowing it from an English town near the Welsh border? Emily seizes on the clue as she seeks to understand the nature of the responsibility she’s been given. And who is Viviane, who married “the one man I ever truly loved,” her grandmother had told her. And why had her grandmother groomed Carwyn Grey to pursue Emily?

Oleson’s complicated female characters spring to life on the page. She’s less adept with male characters – or does it just seem that way as none plays a central role in the tale?

Though the two storylines are separated by 600 years, Oleson weaves them together seamlessy. She borrows from history and such historical figures as Henry the VIII, who makes an appearance in these pages. As the twisting storylines unfold, so does their deeper significance: stories – large and small – are what tie us together.

“Tapiser” is a mystery. On another level, though, it’s a story about family – and how, over time, family stories assume secret lives. That secrecy simultaneously ensures that the stories both hide and reveal truths. Revealed, they have the power to realign family relationships and to forge new families. With each twist and turn of Oleson’s delightful novel, the centrality of such stories is illuminated.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. It was also named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by “Shelf Unbound.” Reach him through his website, frankosmithstories.com.


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