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Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (Review)

February 14, 2016

Annie Dillard, The MaytreesI am not, as I wrote in my recent post on Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence, a big “reader” of audiobooks. In fact, until Cadence, I hadn’t listened to one for a few years. However, we do have a few here that we had given Mr Gums’ mother as her sight started to fail and which we retrieved after she died back in 2011. I bought them for her, so am rather keen to see what I think of my choices!

Now, I’ve never read Dillard, though of course I’ve heard of her. The Maytrees, published in 2007, is her second novel, her first being the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek published over thirty years earlier in 1974. Fascinating … but I’m not surprised. The Maytrees is such a quiet, deeply thoughtful book, it could only have grown out of years of living and contemplation. It reads like a lifelong meditation on the meaning of life at its very foundation – on how and why we love, on how we should live our lives.

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS

Provincetown, 1983

Provincetown, 1983

There is very little plot, though there is a storyline which tracks the relationship, through various ups and downs, of Toby Maytree (called Maytree in the book) and Lou, the woman he marries. This story is imbued with the place they live, Provincetown, Cape Cod, a place I visited in the 1980s. I loved reliving my experience through Dillard’s gorgeous evocation of it. Anyhow, the time spans from Maytree’s childhood in the late 1920s and 1930s through several decades to, I guess, the 1990s or so. Paradoxically, while the place is woven closely into the story – you get to know, intimately, the dunes, the tides, the beach shack, and even the bed that is moved, as needs change, up and down the floors of their home to bring the outdoors in – the story is absolutely universal. It’s the quintessential boy-meets-girl story but one that doesn’t end at “happily ever after”. It takes us through the long years of their marriage, the birth of their child, a devastating betrayal, a huge-hearted forgiveness, and their deaths. The book shifts around a bit in chronology, making you work a bit, but you usually know where you are.

While the main themes of the book relate to love and life’s meaning, many other ideas come through. There’s a lot of discussion of reading and literature. We are told early in the novel that “He read for facts, she for transport”. When she, Lou, finds love, here is her reaction:

Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.

Later in the book when love is lost and recovered, she wonders again about love and life’s meaning. There might be a point to life, she wonders, and there might be an answer in books. She feels, however, that she had only moved a millimetre on these questions in her lifetime. She reflects on how life with Maytree had felt complete – until she’d had her baby, Petie, after which she couldn’t imagine life without him. But, inevitably, he too moved on, and in time had his own child presenting him to her as if she didn’t know the experience or feeling!

In other words, it’s a wise, knowing book, a book which sees how people think and behave. Here is Lou, newly alone:

She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.

I loved that little kick – “not noticing they had equal time”. How often do we see the other grass as greener, not seeing our own!

There’s also sly – or perhaps not so sly – commentary on American politics. Dillard describes Hoover, in 1947, warning Americans about artists, and asks “Did America have a culture besides making money?” There’s reference to a “Strictly for profit hospital”, and, at another point, when Maytree ponders the idea of shooting himself to save getting too old, we are reminded that “this was America”. These scattered political jibes provide interesting intrusions into what is mostly a philosophical novel.

The language is quietly beautiful. As I was listening to it, I could only really capture phrases to share, such as “he rummaged her spare comments”, or a description of one of Maytree’s earlier girlfriends as “a great handful of a girl out west”, or a description of the sea as a “monster with a lace hem”. Little motifs run through the book. Lou’s various red items of clothing like a scarf or a dress and Maytree’s red-speckled notebooks, for example, provide colour and continuity, and hint too at the passion of their love.

Maytree and Lou are drawn at depth. We move inside both their heads at different times. At the time of Maytree’s betrayal – which I must say is the point in the book that is hardest to grasp – gentle, but strong and resourceful Lou decides that “if this was not shaping up to be Maytree’s finest hour it might as well be hers”. The other main characters populating their Provincetown world include Deary, Reevadare Weaver, Cornelius Blue and Jane Cairo, all of whom add depth and diversity to the close community Dillard depicts.

I must say though that I found it quite a difficult book to listen to. In some ways it was too slow – we read faster than we can listen, I’ve been told. As the reader, David Rasche, read pages and pages of admittedly beautiful description and contemplation, I felt held back. I wanted to read it at my pace, faster. And yet, it was also too fast, because at times I wanted to stop and mull over the words and ideas.

I could go on, but without having the book itself to bring it all together the way I’d like, I’ll just close here and say that I found it a thoroughly satisfying book. It is warm, non-judgemental, generous and wise. And if that sounds like it’s also sentimental and corny, you’d be wrong. One day I’ll read more Dillard.

Annie Dillard
The Maytrees (audio)
(read by David Rasche)
Harper Audio, 2007
5.5 hours on 5 CDs

22 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2016 11:08 pm

    I have never heard of this author. Thank you for this detailed blog. I am adding this to my TBR. 🙂

    Also, are you planning to listen to more audiobooks?

    • February 14, 2016 11:23 pm

      Thanks Deepika …

      As for “reading” more audiobooks, I probably will, but not until we do more car trips!

      • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
        February 15, 2016 2:41 pm

        Mrs AtKallaroo listens to audiobooks while she is quilting. Last week she acquired some BlueTooth headphones, and I showed her how to “borrow” audiobooks from the library, using a tablet app. Now she is able to wander around the house listening to her book – which makes housework more enjoyable. So you don’t have to wait for car trips to enjoy audiobooks. (And us old dogs are still learning new tricks!)

        • February 15, 2016 5:18 pm

          Ah yes, Neil, I can see they could work well in that situation too. (I might put in a order for some headphones with Mr Gums.) Of course, you have to do housework to get this value!! Haha. Seriously though, I tend to listen to the radio on my tablet on the rare occasions I do housework but I’ll remember this as an option.

  2. Moira Nolan permalink
    February 14, 2016 11:56 pm

    Thank you for an interesting review, Whispering gums. I will consider reading it, though still got ‘Murder in the telephone exchange’ at the bedside, only just dipped into it so far (too busy reading French novels!). I often enjoy reading your reviews as pieces in themselves, you do all the work for us! 🙂 The book you describe (The Maytrees) reminds me of Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, a story about a couple getting older and also eventually finding love (with each other).

    • February 15, 2016 7:52 am

      Thanks Moira, that’s a lovely thing to say …

      I know what you mean about having books on the go, books waiting in the pile and other books vying for attention. In that context I say thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard of that author, though I have never read any of her books. It would be interesting to compare if I could find the time!

  3. February 15, 2016 2:07 pm

    I rarely listen to books on audio; and I think your frustration at not being able to read at your own pace, or to mull over a passage, are my reasons for not doing so. but if I see an annie Dillon on the shelf at the library I will pick it up…

    • February 15, 2016 5:14 pm

      A person after my own heart crlbth59! They have their place, I know, but are far from ideal for people who like to read the way we do, eh?

  4. Meg permalink
    February 15, 2016 4:35 pm

    I have reserved the book. There is no way I could listen to a book. I like to read at my own pace. Also, I would be too distracted watching the scenery if I listened to an audio book. I would have to be the passenger as I probably would cause an accident if I was driving!

    • February 15, 2016 5:25 pm

      Haha, Meg, fair comment. For a long time, until these two recent books, we have been driving in silence – no music, no radio, no audiobooks, as we had done in the past. I think both of us have enjoyed the peace of just bowling along, looking at the scenery, and being with our thoughts. But, I was finding that my ability to drive without the eyes glazing/tiring was significantly reducing. By accident, I’ve discovered that listening to these audiobooks has increased my endurance. I’d only do it on freeways and quiet simple country roads though where you have to concentrate on the road but don’t have to make a lot of decisions. And, we still do “stop, revive, survive” two-hourly.

      (The problem is that while I find listening helpful when I’m driving, I like to make notes so it’s better when I’m the passenger!!)

      • ian darling permalink
        February 15, 2016 9:14 pm

        I read Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and, remembering, wouldn’t have thought she was a writer really suited to an audiobook. It sounds to be an interesting and thoughtful book.

        • February 15, 2016 9:52 pm

          No, I think you’re right Ian, she isn’t really – and I have a feeling it wasn’t right for my ma-in-law. It would be a great read though. I’d love to wallow in some of her language.

  5. Carolyn permalink
    February 16, 2016 3:22 am

    Did you ever have access to a written copy? If not, it must have been quite a task to write such a wonderful review. Anyhow, you’ve convinced me of this book and I’ve put a reserve on it at the library.

    • February 16, 2016 3:38 am

      No I didn’t unfortunately Carolyn (unlike Cadence). I jotted down ideas as we were driving (when I wasn’t the driver) and found a few quotes on the GoodReads quotes page, a couple of which, I was thrilled to find, were longer quotes of lines I’d jotted down. Clearly I liked what someone else had liked! I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

  6. February 16, 2016 6:27 am

    Sounds like a lovely book. I am not surprised about it being slow and meditative since that is exactly how I am currently finding Pilgrim and Tinker Creek. Will definitely make sure I read Maytree some time!

  7. February 16, 2016 10:41 am

    I have never thought about reading out loud being slower, though I agree it’s true, and it has never impacted on my enjoyment of audio books. The biggest bugbear I find is having to listen in full to passages I would skip over when reading, like the headings of emails or strings of numbers.
    My local libraries only have a limited number of literary audio books and I think I’ll have to start buying them, from Audible maybe. Then there’s the problem of reviews (seeing as I’m always the driver). At the moment I have listened to Go Set a Watchman but am on two waiting listings for a ‘hard’ copy.

    • February 16, 2016 4:02 pm

      Interestingly Bill, I had only heard that information about reading aloud being slower on the radio a few days before I wrote the most. They actually said that on average you read aloud 150wpm, but read text around 300wpm (some people slower, some faster but that was the average). When you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it. I reckon though that in your situation it’s a great way to pass the time when driving – and better than nothing. (Like Lisa used to do on her work commute)

      • February 16, 2016 4:10 pm

        It was a discovery I made at school, when like most good readers I would end up pages or chapters ahead of the teacher or student doing the reading.

        • February 16, 2016 5:54 pm

          Ah, yes, you’re right, Bill. I remember that experience now.

  8. February 17, 2016 1:14 am

    One of my favorite authors. I have not read this one, though. Guess I’ll give it a try.

    • February 17, 2016 8:59 am

      So you’ve mainly read her memoirs etc Diane? I’d love to read her An American Childhood.

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