“The Vigilance of Stars” is a literary treat. The ensemble of characters (and one real-life figure) that writer Patricia O’Donnell seamlessly weaves through her new novel each has a substantial story to share, nearly all with poignant, painful backstories. Kiya and Peter comprise the binding heart of the story, with the other half dozen characters significantly linked to one or the other, or to both.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

The story opens with Kiya sitting on the toilet taking a pregnancy test, anticipating catching “a small slippery fish” that will tell her whether or not she is pregnant. She is a talented hair stylist in Portland who regularly looks in on her mother, herself a woman diminished by worry. Kiya is madly in love with Peter.

Peter shows up on page two. He graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in philosophy, but hustles to make a living, helping out at a bar and working as an arborist. An aspiring singer/songwriter, he doesn’t know what to do with his life. He sits in his apartment picking out a possible tune on his banjo as he wonders how best to break up with Kiya. A line comes to him. “The road is here, and it’s a long ways away. I’m here, I’m here. I’m lost on the way.”

The story unfolds slowly but confidently. Characters make appearances with little setup, and exit smoothly. There is Maddie, Peter’s single mother, who routinely visits Alex, her longtime partner, in the nursing home; he is the victim of acute encephalitis.

In an extended backstory, Maddie’s mother, Evelyn, or “Evie,” settles in her parent’s cottage on Parker Pond near Rangeley Lake where she encounters Wilhelm Reich, a real-life figure years ago in the Rangeley Lake region, infamous for his orgone accumulator, which supposedly trapped “orgone” or life energy. The mystery of what, exactly, was the relationship between Evie and Reich runs throughout the story.

Maddie’s kind-hearted next-door neighbor Jack looks after his autistic grandson. Kiya and Peter struggle to cope with absent fathers, while Kiya’s mother, Judith, must grapple with her brother Andrew, who hung himself when they were kids yet lingers about as a ghost. Then, too, there’s Peter’s new girlfriend, Toni.

Pieces of each story fall into place like kaleidoscope fragments, each bringing new color and perspective. In one sequence, Kiya’s father shows up for a visit and reveals the reason he abandoned her and her mother years before – he is gay. Though Peter has broken up with Kiya, his mother Maddie invites her to live in the cottage on the pond with her during the pregnancy. Peter collects pieces of his absent father, bits his mother sometimes shares, like the fact that his father, like him, majored in philosophy in college. Peter has longed for a father. Not necessarily his own, but someone, anyone, whom he can call “Dad.” Paternity – absent, missing, broken or undeclared — is a central theme in “The Vigilance of Stars.”

The story builds page by page. Details and scenes of past and present co-mingle easily, driving the narrative deeper into the complex puzzle that links the characters. Interiority-of-thought from several characters’ points-of-view makes the tale fully inhabited. O’Donnell is fascinated with things below the surface, favoring the metaphor of water. She is fascinated, too, with the radiance of light, both sun and starlight, twins that alter darkness and shadows. She structures the book with fluid grace, never hurrying, but enabling the story to tenderly envelop the reader.

O’Donnell directs the University of Maine BFA Program in Creative Writing in Farmington, and lives in Wilton. “The Vigilance of Stars,” her second novel and fourth book, will resonate with readers long after the telling. It now resides on the shelf in my library that is given to all-time-favorite reads.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Reach him via his website: frankosmithstories.com.

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