It's a slim book about a four-letter word. Annie Dillard's new novel, a spare 224 pages, is essentially a love story. The Maytrees is about the marriage of Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree. Set in Provincetown, Cape Cod, they meet just after World War II. They fall in love and marry. Then life happens. A child is born. An accident occurrs. There is a betrayal. Time passes and people age. Then there is a time for returning home. That's the bare bones of the matter. Only, what matters more--as this story is told, more than merely what happens--is how these characters think about what happens. Theirs is a rich life of the mind, quietly reflecting on the choices they've made, and how to live with them. (Bones, however bare and broken, do figure into the story as well.)
In other words, and not many words, this novel is more a telling of how these two individuals come to understand the nature and meaning of love within the context of their own unfolding and unconventional story. As Maytree himself works it out, "The question was not death; living things die. It was love. 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."
In The Maytress, love (What is it? How is it made? Can it be done?) is precisely the question. And it is the one question that asks so much of everyone, perhaps no one more than Lou herself. For Lou, who once could be mistaken for Ingrid Bergman, might well be mistaken later on for the classic patient and long-suffering wife, to say nothing of the prospect of canonization. But, she'd think nothing of the kind. What she ends up doing (and it's a stunner!) is something she thinks"anyone would" do. Perhaps we're are all potentially capable of such feats both sacred and mundane. I have my doubts. But I also wonder if the saints are not somehow or other aware of their sainthood from an early age? For, in her adolescence and after her father left her mother, abandoning the family altogether, Lou made a telling self-discovery. "Aware how keenly she would miss any who vanished, she never considered loving less. This odd idea stuck in her mind." Then later, of a college romance with "a reckless cellist," she decided that "she liked loving, renounced being loved, and only rarely thought of slitting his throat."
Then there's that impertinent question. Really, it's a thinly disguised spin off of the one big question of love. It's the question that suddenly occurs to you when you are The Prodigal whatever. It hits you in the face exactly like the slamming of a screen door, just when it's too late and you're already on your way: Is it a good time to come home when you have to?
Somehow or other, this fictional story rings true. At the very least, couldn't we all agree that true love should go beyond mere feelings and conventional morality? Perhaps the heart itself, instead of being the center of the emotions, is more like the life of the mind. Reflecting when reflected upon, would it not seem that loving turns out in the end to be nothing more (or less) than just enough light as may illuminate even the dullest consciousness into the self awareness of being human...and the determination to act like one! Often defeating our expectations and contrary to appearances, loving is more like grace than justice. More mental than sentimental. Nevertheless, why does true love (as we call it) seem so rare an occurrence, if not altogether a fiction itself? Or, is it so utterly commonplace that, like the holy, we fail to notice it? One thing is clear enough: we are all still students. And one good way of comparing notes is to read. Both the lovers in this tale (lovers also of great literature) turn to books to find some confirmation of their experience. (As when Lou read in Hardy, "It may be observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in." ) So, yes--it's a love story. That's what this uncluttered, thoughtful, funny and quietly heartbreaking novel is all about--in so many (not many) words.
Did I mention funny? Perhaps that sounds like a strange claim to make, given the story I've described thus far. But, readers of Annie Dillard know better. We've come to expect, and are not disappointed here, that her comic timing and dry wit will turn up in the most unexpected places. Just as Maytree turned up at Lou's door. "Lord love a duck." No belly laughs here, to be sure. But there are throughout plenty of subtle turns, observed ironies, and here and there, the well-placed punch line. My favorite bit: the brief conversation over breakfast between Maytree and Lou, after the night he returned home.
--Where's the mirror?
--I took it down. There's a hand mirror in the drawer.
--Took it down? Why?
--It wanted products.
Annie does have a way with words. And maybe it's just me, but for some of the words--words like: halyard, pauciloquoys, culch, mesoglea, spicules, and littoral--I had to have the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, faithfully by my side to refer to rather frequently. What good fortune for me then that Annie Dillard, so I noticed, also just happened to be on that dictionary's usage panel. (Why shouldn't a novel stretch one's vocabulary as well as one's heart, mind and imagination?) But, just what in the sam hill was I supposed to make of "palpating mastitis in zebus"? I tried googling that one and picked up incomprehensible (to me at least) hits like "improving the reproductive management of dairy cattle." (Clearly, Annie and I are not reading the same books.)
One of our most gifted writers has written an excellent novel, narrating her story, if not simply, at the very least truly and succinctly. In heaven, Professor Strunk beams! She's pared down her precise choice of words to only what is essential to the story alone. If it were live theater, this intimate drama would play out before us upon a stage with few props and no scenery. And we would leave the play, as we do this book, feeling more than we could speak, with lots to think about.