Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (Review)

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.


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