Anne Britting Oleson lets readers know right from the start that they are in for something different from her previous fiction. The title alone, “Cow Palace,” lacks the literary ring of her first three novels: “The Book of the Mandolin Player,” “The Dovecote” and “Tapiser.”

That difference is amplified by the book’s opening. Clattering mayhem erupts in the kitchen of the Galloway, an upscale restaurant in the fictional town of Elmwood, Maine, as Rob, the chef who did stints in kitchens in New York and Paris, fights with his wife Kelly Garvey, who is the front-of-the-house manager, a fight that spills into the seating area just as customers start arriving for dinner. Dinah Galloway, the owner, appears in over her head, attempting to seem nonplused as she sits with Mark Burdette, a reporter from the Gazette, there to profile the new restaurant.

The fight at first seems a bizarre sideshow, even distracting to anyone who has turned to Oleson’s new novel expecting something more understated, more resonant with her earlier books (Oleson, who lives in Dixmont, is also a poet). Eventually, though, marital discord proves close to the heart of the story, manifesting in various forms throughout the book.

Almost every critical element of the story is intimated in the first chapter, where we are introduced to most of the book’s over-the-top characters. There’s Dinah, left to realize her late husband Ross’ dream of rehabbing a grand old house and opening it as a restaurant. He was the love of her life, a life she seems unable to reclaim while grieving his loss and struggling to make a go of the Galloway.

There is her best friend from childhood, Mirelle Holbein, a music teacher at a private school in Elmwood, who is in a near constant state of hyper-agitation over her portly, middle-aged husband Wallace, the school’s principal, who is carrying on a very public affair with Alix Mailloux, the substitute gym teacher. Mirelle’s temper is a “flash fire,” Oleson writes, “quick to ignite, fierce to burn, and taking forever to extinguish.” When her husband and his paramour come to the restaurant later that evening, Mirelle, who also happens to be there, volunteers to deliver their drinks, forcing his upturned beer into his pants, and tossing Alix’s down her blouse. Perry, a sweet young line cook who is always attempting to manage the chaos in Dinah’s life, adds to this crazy mix of characters.

After Mirelle’s stunt with the drinks, Dinah fears that Burdette will write a negative story, driving a stake through the heart of her dead husband’s dream. Mirelle blunders on, as if determined to assure it. She insists Dinah introduce her to Burdette, then tells him, “’I expect you’ll be able to write up some glowing things about the Cow Palace here.'” Burdette is confused. What is Cow Palace? he asks. “’Galloway, you see,’ Mirelle explains. ‘Her last name. It’s a breed of cow, you know. The belted Galloway? They have black heads and black butts, and their middles are white. Oreo cookie cows.”

Surprisingly, Burdette’s story in the Gazette is positive. He praises the restaurant’s décor and prompt service, and gives the food high marks, too. The kindness of the piece reveals to Dinah that he is interested in more than culinary critique. But Dinah can’t stop missing her dead husband, and her increasing attraction to Burdette only ties her in knots. After he drops her off at home one day, she realizes just how much so. “She looked across at the photograph of Ross on the piano. She had wanted (Burdette) to kiss her. She had wanted him to be Ross. …What a mess her life was.”

The acrimony between the chef and his wife, and Mirelle and her husband are twin cyclones that roar through the story. The chef is a temperamental blowhard who bullies his wife and threatens to upend operations at the restaurant. They fight over their BMW and sabotage one another’s attempts to drive it. Mirelle battles her husband over their home, each changing the locks to keep the other out.

Love, heartbreak, betrayal, revenge and unrequited love simmer throughout the novel — also secrets. Why is Mirelle forever butting into Dinah’s affairs? Where has Wallace mysteriously disappeared during his marital battles with Mirelle? Why won’t Dinah allow herself to let go and open herself up to Burdette’s obvious interest in her? Dinah’s heart is the soul of the story, and in Oleson’s hands, readers are treated to truths that both mark and mar the efforts of people attempting to make loving commitments to one another.

The novel reads like some madcap play seen in a summer theatre production. But it lays bare the potential cost of withholding the heart’s yearning to be whole.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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