The Maytrees by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins, 2007)
A NEW BOOK by Annie Dillard comes with extraordinarily high expectations. We expect her observations to make us sit up and notice the natural world—and our part in it—with new eyes. We expect to focus small in order to think large. We expect her lyricism to impress, her language to challenge. We expect her images to lodge themselves (forever, sometimes) in some deep part of our consciousness. (Who among us, after reading her essay collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, can erase the image of the weasel, jaw clamped and hanging from the naturalist’s hand?) More than most of contemporary literature, we expect her books—including her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction—to become companions, work we come back to and learn from again and again.
Her beautiful and contemplative new novel, The Maytrees, meets all of these expectations.
The Maytrees is her second novel and altogether different in scope and breadth from her first. The Living, published fifteen years ago, is an epic that involves several family lines—American, Native American, and Chinese—as they struggle to survive in the nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest, and through their lives examines the myriad effects of larger historical forces on the individual. The Living’s vastness makes the narrow focus of her new novel and the insularity of her characters seem, on the surface, startlingly and daringly simple. But, of course, with Dillard, the surface is only the point of entry.
The Maytrees is a love story. There are only two protagonists; together they have one son. They live most of their lives in one place, “the mineral sandspit” of Cape Cod, more precisely the dunescape of Provincetown. As with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the book for which she’s most known and for which she won the Pulitzer, it’s as if Dillard is asking the reader to stay put, to slow down so we can talk about something serious.
Toby Maytree, a native of Provincetown, is a World War II veteran, a mover of homes, and a poet. When he first meets Lou Bigelow and mistakes her for Ingrid Bergman, we know he’s hooked, and when he learns she has a serious mind and an ear for poetry (“an ear!” he exclaims), we know he’s a goner. After a bumbling courtship, he proposes, and they celebrate their engagement on a friend’s lawn with beach-plum brandy in conical Dixie cups that no one can put down.
Theirs is a marriage of both mind and heart. They often sleep outside in the dunes. They watch the tides. They stargaze. They study constellations and race against time to memorize them before they die. Between them they read three hundred books a year. “He read for facts, she for transport. Nothing about them was rich except their days swollen with time.”
Together, like philosophers, they begin to observe and question the nature of their love—Toby in his red-speckled notebooks, Lou in her mind. They wonder if love is experienced differently for a man and a woman, whether it is genetically or socially determined, what keeps a person coming back after the passion is gone. They observe love’s changes with time. Among the novel’s many questions, the central one that drives the plot (this is a novel after all) is one of monogamy. “The question was not death;” writes Dillard, “living things die. Not that we died, but that we cared wildly, then deeply, for one person out of billions. We bound ourselves to the fickle, changing, and dying as if they were rock.” Neither Toby nor Lou, of course, is rock, and it is here, therefore, that we uncover the novel’s central conflict: after fourteen years of marriage Toby leaves Lou for another, a friend.
These questions and how they are posed reminded me of a moment in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek during one of Dillard’s many observant walks, when she writes:
Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness….
This seems to be the exact practice and posture of the Maytrees. They take in the wider view. They spend a lifetime trying to see it. And it is from this vantage point that they do their best to make sense of things. After Toby leaves, for example, Lou climbs a tower and each day, a minute at a time, gazes at the landscape and lets go. As they age, together, it turns out, they spend their evenings on the dunes, couched in their landscape, as much as they are observers of it.
The outer, natural landscape is always where the best of Dillard’s purposes meet. Language and image sharpen. Even if you’ve grown up near the dunes of Provincetown, I assure you, Dillard can get you to see them, and even smell them, anew. “She saw three-hundred-foot dunes swirl around the horizon like a school of fish: bright side, dark side, moving downwind.” She brings our attention to the condensed breath of a chickadee, the “flying wedge of cirrus,” the way the “pollen scum lay on the swale’s water like spray paint.”
What we don’t always see with as much absolute clarity are the inner landscapes of the characters, Lou in particular. Dillard makes her someone of “immeasurable reserve.” Toby once described her as “an organ of silence.” With a character like this, who will be an unapologetic enigma to those around her, we rely on the moments in her point of view to get to know her better. And at times we do. We hear her humor, her proclivity for corny one-liners like “go soak your head” or “save the sailors!”—all of which she thinks and doesn’t say out loud. We learn, wonderfully, that when she looks at people she tries to memorize them. And it is from her point of view that we see the one fleeting moment when she falters after Toby leaves her. Otherwise, not surprisingly, she can’t convince anyone, including this reader, that she wasn’t heartbroken over Toby’s betrayal. By the end of her life the townspeople have made her into myth, and there are times when she feels close to that. Sometimes Lou feels like the beautiful, mythical landscape we haven’t had enough time really to see.
Dillard’s people of action, like Toby, are easier to understand, but they’re also not nearly as complex. Dillard crystallizes them with sharp, often humorous attributes. Deary Hightoe, an architect gone dune-sleeper and seal whisperer, has married many men and for a time makes glued oyster-shell sculptures for tourists. When asked “how the smell of starlight on sand differed from the smell of moonlight,” she responds that it is more peppery. Reevedere, whose new teeth make her look like Burt Lancaster, was another character I couldn’t get enough of:
—You look wonderful, Jane [a friend] told Reevedere. Reevedere’s humpback, which she named Surtsey, was now almost higher than her head.
—Honey, I got enough troubles without looking good. Reevedere never used to call people honey. She was playing old age like a bass.
The truth is that both Toby and Lou are serious people. They work very hard at saying what they mean, and they take themselves, their lives, and their time seriously. For both of them, this seriousness produces art. For Toby it is poetry, and for Lou, later in life, it is painting. (When she eventually gets her work into a local gallery, she sneaks in and steals her paintings back the night before the opening.) The way Dillard describes Lou’s painting is illustrative of what Dillard herself does with her own art:
In thick oils she depicted clumsy beaches and clouds. Their foregrounds and middle grounds showed jetsam and wrack, stained waves, brown bottles, steamer shells, broken china, waxed paper, church keys, foil, nails sticking though in lumber, clamshells, tires, purses, shoes—only two or three objects on each canvas. With a sable brush she graphed each torn string of a crab trap against dirt pink sky. Color was local. It allowed an ocean like red marcelled hair. Everything was littoral. Sandpipers pecked child footprints in mud. Storm sea like a ripsaw blade, and clouds in a mumble nearing. She would no more scumble a cloud than kill a child.
Only two or three objects at a time? That pace sounds about like Dillard, as does the meticulous care it takes to include each torn string of a crab trap. Then there is the red marcelled hair as the fresh metaphor for ocean. (Yes, I did have to look up “marcelled,” along with a number of other marvelous words and references peppered throughout the narrative; and I thank my lucky stars when a writer turns me to my dictionary or other works of literature.) This care, the local color, the seriousness—as serious as killing a child!—with which the narrator here is taking her art, reminds one of Dillard’s art and the care with which she assigns the exact word, the right color, to its rightful owner. Color and language and flora and fauna are indeed local. Dillard has taught us, in a new way, in a new place, in each of her books, that precision is important, a way to get at meaning.
Dillard made this point years ago in her book Living by Fiction. Reading her ideas on writing gives us the sense that she is a writer who has known for a long time what she thinks literature can do, and has set out to get her own writing to do it:
No angelic systems need be dragged in by the hair to sprinkle upon objects a borrowed splendor. Instead, each of the world’s unique objects is the site of its own truth and goodness. Each thing is its own context for meaning. Its virtue is its stubborn uniqueness, in its resistance to generalization, and even in its resistance to our final knowledge of it.
She may be speaking about objects here, but her point also applies to her depiction of character. After all, she must assign the right words to them too. The Maytrees are stubbornly unique. They, and their story, do resist generalization. They and their home among the dunes are the sites of their own truth and goodness. Their love resists our final knowledge of it, of them.
It is their resolute search for meaning—in the context of two individuals—that makes this an important book on the shelf of novels about marriage. At one point Toby asks, “What was it, exactly—or even roughly—that we people are meant to do here? Or, how best use one’s short time?” What is unique to the Maytrees is not only the intensity with which these questions are approached over a lifetime, but that both Toby and Lou live these questions with equal and wholly individual devotion. I am hard put to come up with a novel that does anything similar. Yes, Middlemarch involved a marriage of minds (albeit an unhappy one) and a break with societal expectations, both of which happen in The Maytrees, but the subject of Dillard’s novel—the nature of love over time—is different from Eliot’s both in scope and focus. I was also reminded of Evan S. Connell’s wonderful books, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, written in vignettes from both points of view and chronicling the small, dramatic, and morally challenging moments that add up to a marriage. Dillard’s style and the context of her characters’ lives are entirely different from Connell’s (the Maytrees are hardly concerned with social mores), but like Connell, Dillard does offer equal measure and importance to the desires and the minds of both partners.
The Maytrees’ is a marriage of both individual and collective quest for meaning, a quest that, aside from their naïve courtship, allows no room for the sentimentality that we might mistakenly associate with “a love story.” The truth is that the Maytrees’ journey—their marriage and its struggles—is not all that unusual. It is the way in which Dillard has them approach and make meaning of their story that is so compelling. Toby and Lou are as serious about how they use their time (a theme to which Dillard often returns) when they are together as when they are apart. And because The Maytrees is concerned with the entire lifespan of a relationship—from its beginnings, through its failures, and to its end—we, as readers, are enlightened by these characters as they face betrayals and forgiveness, aging, and then, ultimately, death with the same discerning gaze that they affix to the constellations and the tides. The Maytrees is a book that can be read, with new insight, again and again.
—Reviewed by Jessica Murphy
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.