Love, Marriage and Dying in “The Maytrees” by Annie Dillard

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction at age 29 is just unfair. I think I may have read everything that Annie Dillard has written and published. Some more than once. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was the first one and lines, images and descriptions from it remain vivid for me many years later. Generally speaking her books require time and commitment from the reader. You slow to read the account of the mockingbird’s plunge from the corner of a building and Dillard’s meditation on truth and beauty as performance. (Incidentally it’s where I got the title for the community Advent blog.)

I’ve read two of her novels. The Living is set in the Pacific Northwest at the end of the 18th Century. It takes a while to get into her use of language, and also to the fact that almost everyone dies in the story, but it is a stunning novel, named in in the US among the best 100 novels of the West.

So I approached her latest novel, The Maytrees with anticipation. On the surface it is a story about two young people who fall in love and move through life and all it’s complexity. It’s set in the Cape Cod area among a community of colourful bohemians. Artists, poets, writers with fantastic names like Reevadare Weaver, Deary Hightoe and Sooner Roe. The Maytrees are Toby and Lou, a couple who meet and marry and alternate their living between a home in the town of Provincetown and summer living in a shack in the dunes by the sea.

Theirs is an almost idyllic love, though Toby, known as Maytree in the book, interrupts Lou constantly as they read together, always trying to include her in his reading. He is a poet of some minor success, she is a woman of few words. After 14 years of marriage and one son named Petie, Maytree leaves Lou for Deary and together they move to Maine where they live for 20 years becoming a very successful architect/contractor team, though he still toils with his poetry. A combination of events brings them all back together at the end of life.

The book is an complex mixture of narrative and meditation on love, loss and aging. Dialogue is sparse and is integrated with the narrative so that it is very easily missed. There are paragraphs of questions which interrupt the flow of the story and slow down the development because I just had to pause and think. The language structure is also characteristically dense and complex. There are words used here which I’ve never heard before. For some of them I picked up a dictionary or went online  to check the meaning. Seriously, who uses words like tatterdemalion (actually its sound is its meaning)? Pauciloquy? Lou was described as this…try combining paucity and soliloquy. Epistomeliac? (beats me!). The big words combine with sentence structure in such a way that at times I had no idea what she was saying.

By example, the flyleaf on my copy has a quotation from the New York Times review which says that the last line is so lovely it may send you right back to the beginning. I’m still trying to figure out what it means.

But then again, sometimes the sheer beauty of the language breaks through. There is a description of the sex life of the couple in their early weeks and months which is utterly beautiful. In fact the telling of their meeting and early reticence, their shy coming together and Maytree’s infatuation with Lou is gorgeous. And as usual with Dillard, her descriptive powers for the sea, the tides, the sand dunes and the natural world generally is unsurpassed.

And all the time we circle around and around what it means to love someone across the years.

For all the challenges it presents, all the confusion and denseness, I forgive it all for the sake of Part Three and then the Epilogue. Honestly, working through the rest of the book establishing the internal dimension of the lives of the main characters it all bears fruit here. I sat down and read it all at a sitting. The narrative flows beautifully, in and out like the tide measuring the declining days of the characters. The language could make a stone weep.

Like the description of Lou watching Maytree standing alone on the beach, rotating one ankle and then the other, and she smiles, because even after fourteen years of marriage and then twenty years apart she still recognises a familiar bodily action. She creeps up behind him unheard,

She crept up and put her arms around his waist from behind. Instantly, one of his hands—the one with the good thumb—covered hers. How did he do that? His touch was light. He was exactly with her but not holding, not pressing. Neither he nor she crossed the line beyond fond.

Perfect.

It’s so typical of Dillard, this contemplation of mortality in two bedside vigils. She describes death so beautifully and so naturally as the proper order of things. What loss there is is the loss of the beauty of the world around. Toby writes of his end that he: “found it first impossible, then sad, to near the falls’ lip, to yield to the ripping loss of the coloured world.”

It’s a relatively short book as modern novels go, it requires commitment and time and the last 35 pages or so will undo you.

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