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[672] The Maytrees – Annie Dillard

1maytrees

” Maytree had been sensible of no particular sentiment except the natural wish to help Deary find comfort. That steady wish for her comfort on which he had acted for years and Lou and Pete had acted for eight weeks—was love? ” (187)

The Maytrees reads like a book-length poem. It spans about 60 years and moves back and forth different times. The story begins in post-war Provincetown, Massachusetts, where a young couple, Toby Maytree and Lou Bigelow, one an aspiring poet and mover, and the other painter,, live frugally among the Bohemian circle of friends. Dillard, with very quiet and sparse prose, delivers one vignette after another peering into the nuances of the Maytrees’ life and the vicissitudes of Cape Cod.

Who then do old people fall in love? Why stay loving? The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will. It is a gentleman’s game. (130)

The Maytrees is a meditation of love, forgiveness, and passion. Despite the big words and name-dropping (Lou is a big reader who peruses even the dictionary, whose reading often spills into the story), there is good straight narrative that is illuminating. But one has to get used to Dillard’s meandering style. The story gathers its momentum after Toby and Lou give birth to Petie, and at age 42, Toby takes up with a family friend Deary, a “hoyden” who is given to sleeping on the beach. Lou falls apart after the separation and gives up things she doesn’t need and people she doesn’t like. “With those blows she opened her days like a piñata.”

He, Maytree, would return home in courage—he had of course grown in courage—and part of courage is thinking well of people, even people you have wronged. (160)

The Cape Cod of these pages is not an easy place to sit. The landscape is pared-down if not completely derelict. The unfolding of love is languorous and is with a good deal of attention to the ocean’s shifting shapes. Lou’s single life becomes something of a quest for life’s meaning, but “to what end she had no clue.” Her ardent inquiries unfold in lingeringly poetic, beautifully crafted sentences. Her son is estranged from his father for twenty years. The end is not surprising, but Dillard renders it very authentic in the ordinariness of the people and their circumstances. It takes the arrival of death to tug the whole drama tautly into focus. Death brings reader back to what Dillard emphasizes and does best: contemplation of mortality, which gives her writing an extraordinarily fierce and burnished quality.

216 pp. Harper Collins. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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