The Maytrees Paperback – Sep 18 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Lou Bigelow meets her husband-to-be, Toby Maytree, when Toby returns to Provincetown following WWII. In the house Lou inherits from her mother, they read, cook soup, play games with friends, vote and raise a child. Toby writes poetry and does odd jobs; Lou paints. Their unaffected bohemianism fits right in with the Provincetown landscape, which Dillard, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, describes with an offhand but deep historical sense. Years into the marriage, Toby suddenly decamps to Maine with another local woman, Deary Hightoe; flash forward six years to Lou reading Toby's semimonthly letters (and Deary's marginal notes) "with affectionate interest." Dillard, stripping the story to bare facts-plus-backdrop, is after something beyond character and beyond love, though she evokes Lou and Toby's beautifully. Thus, when Deary's heart falters 20 years later and Toby brings her home to Lou for hospice care, Lou puts up water for tea and gets going. She feels too much, not too little, for mere drama, although people who don't know her misread her. In short, simple sentences, Dillard calls on her erudition as a naturalist and her grace as poet to create an enthralling story of marriage—particular and universal, larky and monumental. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Dillard, a member in good standing of the school of Emerson and Thoreau, reads the living world with the elevated attention accorded sacred texts. This habit of mind shapes her prized nonfiction, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) to For the Time Being (1999), and underlies her fiction, first, in The Living (1992), a historical saga set in the Pacific Northwest. And now in this rhapsodic novel of our times set on Cape Cod and portraying free-spirited characters dazzled by the sea, stars, sun, wind, and dunes. Deary, a country-club escapee, sleeps in the sand's cradling embrace. Poet Toby Maytree cherishes the beach shack his coast guard father built, which is where he takes beautiful and meditative Lou, launching a epic love. Dillard's gift for combining scientific precision with soul-stirring lyricism has never been more beguiling and philosophically resonant. Can Lou and Maytree's seaside idyll last? Yes and no. Broken bones and broken promises do not altogether slay love, or dispel osmotic understanding. The ocean gives, takes, gives back. Lou is an anchorite, free of clock time and clutter, devoted to the story of the land. Maytree is a voyager who, in old age, returns home. In this mythic and transfixing tale, Dillard wryly questions notions of love, exalts in life's metamorphoses, and celebrates goodness. As she casts a spell sensuous and metaphysical, Dillard covertly bids us to emulate may trees--the resilient hawthorn--the tree of joy, of spring, of the heart. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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.
What's up with Annie Dillard? Is she out of control, or is the level of her genius such that merely mortal minds (like mine) have trouble comprehending?
Surprising to say, I think it's the latter.
Here's a sampling of other quotations....
* After they married she learned to feel their skin as double-sided.
* His brain lobes seemed to part like clouds over sun.
* Everything he saw was lower than his socks.
* It was this loping shore of mineral silence people meant when they said "the dunes".
* Above the Atlantic's rim she saw a rain's fallstreaks curve.
* She and Petie laughed to flout fate by smashing together, thigmotropic.
* Low tide smelled like green pennies.
* She scoured the sink till the sponge reverted to spicules.
* He witnessed ghost parts and motes on parade disappear.
* Graywacke stones, dirty sea ice, stubby far plane.
* From solid citizens they sublimed to limbless metaphysicians.
* The swale drained the dunes like a vein.
* Sometimes in the middle of their sleep, in the back of the night with the metal wind and stars forcing the room through the window, they woke together as if at a quake.
* Having limited philosophy's objects to certainties, Wittgenstein later realized he broke, in however true a cause, his favorite toy, metaphysics, by forbidding it to enter anywhere interesting.
* Her brain would deliquesce too, and with it all that she had learned topside.
* Once he saw a fireball.
So what is this stuff?
It's an existential love story told in otherworldly language.
I couldn't put it down.
The main action of THE MAYTREES takes place in and around Provincetown, the famous artistic community on the tip of Cape Cod. Although the novel's time span is not spelled out with precision, it encompasses roughly 40 years, beginning shortly after World War II, when Toby Maytree, an aspiring poet and handyman, meets Lou Bigelow, a woman he at first mistook for Ingrid Bergman, "because everyone shows up in Provincetown sooner or later."
Soon, Toby and Lou are married and the parents of a son, Petie. To all outward appearances, their relationship is idyllic and the bonds that hold them together strong, until the day when Petie suffers a broken leg in a bicycle accident and Toby chooses that occasion to announce he's leaving Lou after 14 years of marriage to move to Maine with Deary Hightoe, a family friend and something of an eccentric who is fond of sleeping on the beach, swaddled in a canvas sail. Toby and Deary live contentedly in Maine for 20 years, while Lou and Petie (known as "Pete" as he becomes an adult and earns his living as a commercial fisherman) must come to terms with Toby's abandonment. Eventually, circumstances reunite the characters in Provincetown, and their relationships, in all their complexity, come full circle to bring about a tender and moving resolution.
To some, Toby's abandonment of his wife and young son will appear inexplicable, but it serves as the underpinning for the intriguing questions Dillard raises in her novel. There's no simmering conflict that eventually detonates with the announcement of Toby's departure, no torrid affair with Deary that motivates him. Instead, Toby muses, he simply "fell in love, love unlooked-for." Dillard's theme is marital love: what causes that love to blossom and then endure over time, and why does it sometimes slip away despite the best intentions of both partners? "The feeling of love is so crucial to our species," she observes, "it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will. It is a gentleman's game."
As befits a writer best known for her nature writing in classics like PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK and HOLY THE FIRM, THE MAYTREES is laden with rich descriptive passages portraying the life of nature on Cape Cod. In some ways, THE MAYTREES is an extended lyric poem, filled with captivating imagery. Describing the winter sea, Dillard writes, "Sky ran its candid lengths round the hoop of the horizon. Weak swells spent themselves in muddy sea ice. A tide line of frozen froth like lees stranded in the dead rye." Or this: "From a white lake of fog opaque as paint, the tips of dunes, and only the tips of dunes, arose everywhere like sand peaks that began halfway up the sky....They lacked nothing but connection to earth and a cause for being loose. They looked like a rendezvous of floating tents."
Love endures, Dillard concludes, although in the end it may be transfigured into forms barely recognizable to those who perceived its dim outlines at the start. THE MAYTREES is quieter and less turbulent than another classic exploration of married life, James Salter's LIGHT YEARS. And yet, in a fresh and original way it probes the depths of human relationships, offering a tantalizing glimpse at the truth of how the ties between women and men are forged and tested.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
Her books ebb and flow with the gorgeosity of existence, an exaltation and a high-five to being alive.
This story is compelling; its simplicity tugs at your heart, while its understated orginiality leaves you breathless. How is Dillard capable of this, of squeezing such wisdom and beauty from a time and a place and a family? She SHOWS you, in so many words, lifetimes in a page. I came to understand myself in a more compassionate and loving way while reading this novel. I can't say that about many books- perhaps only this one.