The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

The Maytrees

by Annie Dillard

Published by HarperCollins

216 pages, 2007






Left of Left Field

Reviewed by Diane Leach


Pulitzer-winner Annie Dillard has always trod ground left of left field. In Holy the Firm, a 76 page non-fiction inquiry into the possibility of God through time, Dillard observes “a ruckus on the porch.” Her cat, Small, has dragged in a wren. No, not a wren: “The cat has dragged in a god, scorched. He is alive. I run outside. Save for his wings, he is a perfect, very small man.” Dillard frightens off Small, who drops the man/god at her feet. With her thumb and index finger, Dillard snuffs the thing’s still flaming hair. It looks at her and heaves off. 

This is as good an introduction as any to Dillard’s novel, The Maytrees. Although fiction, Maytrees is as extreme, as left of left field, as any of Dillard’s spectacular non-fiction works. It is also, she claims, her final book. She is tired. She wants to read.  We are left with this final, deeply strange work. 

Lou and Toby Maytree meet in Provincetown just after World War II.  Lou is in her 20s, Toby, 30.  The two circle one anther warily before giving in to an early, passionate love. Like all lovers, they are certain of their invention, its uniqueness and perfection.  When an older neighbor, the much-married Reevadare Weaver, cautions Lou to “Keep your women friends, darling. Men come and go.” Lou is uncomprehending. 

Reevadare is one of a cast as idiosyncratic as their names: Cornelius Blue, who is given to philosophizing from his bachelor’s dune shack, Deary Hightoe, the town hoyden (one of several words in The Maytrees that sent me running for the dictionary: hoyden, a boisterous female.) We also have Slow Sykes, a painter who “read good books,” Dr. New, and Lou’s old flame Primo Dial, who “left her ... for winsome twins playing glockenspiels.”

At this point, 20 pages in, I began getting nervous. Who are all these bizarre people? Nobody has a real job; Deary lives on the beach, for heaven’s sake, making pin money drumming in nightclubs and nattering on about the capacity of minor injuries to awaken corporeal feeling. Nobody talks much sense. When Primo leaves Lou, she mulls for one miserable summer:

Who but a passionate theoretician, the sort those years produce, would burn down the house to finish cooking -- just to see how it came out -- a half-baked principle? It had been an appalling summer she cringed to recall, another failed go at an interior life.

Lou is much concerned with the cultivation of her interior life, nearly to the exclusion of everything else. When son Petie is born, she finally takes part-time work in a gallery so the infant is not subject to the poverty she happily inhabits with Toby.  Both would rather read than work, though Toby helps move houses about the island -- a popular request -- and does some carpenter work. He also produces long poetry about his all-consuming subject, love.  

What kept me going were Dillard’s sentences. She is -- or was -- one of the best in the business. Dillard’s prose is breathtaking; her metaphors, to borrow from her lexicon, enough to knock you out. The sea is “a monster with a lace hem.” Pete’s “fondness for humans did not extend to girls, who were less interesting than frogs, and noisier.” Lou “opened her days like a piñata.”

When Toby leaves her (somewhat improbably) for Deary, Lou “had no force to fight what held her as wind pins paper to a fence. She was a wood horse, a rock cairn, a jerry can of pitch.  She found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch.”

The earth -- Provincetown, the very edge of the land -- is nearly a character itself. The seasons of the Maytrees’ lives and loves play out against weather -- tides, rain, wind, brief summers peopled with tourists. The light that draws too many painters illuminates them as they age. Lou, alone, her child grown and plying the fishing boats, works herself into a flat expanse. She wants time to think and read, no more. To forgive Toby, she takes uphill treks to Pilgrim’s Point, where she attempts “a grip on letting go.” Toby, meanwhile, lives with Deary on an island off Maine, where the couple subside into surprising conventionality. Deary no longer sleeps on the beach; instead she dusts off her architecture degree from MIT and sets about designing expensive coastal vacation homes, which Toby builds against his better judgment.  The two prosper financially, but Toby finds himself reading and writing less and less; worse, he is estranged from Pete. He questions leaving Lou, but commits himself to the good-hearted Deary. 

Though The Maytrees is almost timeless -- apart from World War II, no media or notable persons fix this story in an era -- Dillard drops some interesting allusions into the book. An elderly Toby remembers his mother taking him to see a fishing boat run aground in a storm. The child watches with the townspeople as the coast guard’s rescue attempts fail. The crewmen, stranded on the boat’s masts, become too cold to maintain their grips: “The stranded crewmen dropped (from the boat) all night like acorns.” 

Earlier in the novel, Lou recalls a murder on the beach where Deary sleeps; the killer raped a woman, beheaded her, and cut off her hands. I couldn’t help but recall the horrific Carey Stayner, who murdered Joie Ruth Armstrong in a similar fashion in Yosemite National Park Time winds its way through our lives, and like love, Dillard seems to say, it is inevitable, inescapable. The rest is so much flotsam -- littoral things (another lunge for the dictionary. Littoral: objects lying alone shoreline.) -- nothing meaningful in sum but “... love .... Not that we died, but that we cared wildly, deeply, for one person out of billions.” 

Dillard hangs her oddballs on enough of a plot to keep us reading: Deary, older than Toby, becomes frail; her heart begins failing. After a slip on the ice, Toby is also hurt, unable to care for his increasingly disoriented wife, who staunchly refuses all medical care. There is nothing for it but to return to the calm, silent Lou, who, with Petie and his wife Marie, nurse first Deary, then Toby, into their graves beside the sea, which Dillard is at pains to point out is impervious. Yet as the characters come together, close to death, Lou wonders:

Could a person hold all people past and present in awareness?  She further wondered if doing so was, by some errant chance, the point -- toward what end she had no clue. Not that life required a point. But she found herself starting to sway toward eventually considering that there might be one. A point. Any point.

The point, in Dillard’s world, is love, with attendant forgiveness. And though Lou and Toby Maytree are stilted characters, they spring from a mind so unusual, so insistent on its intent, that we are obliged to forgive their creator. | August 2007


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.