The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, published by Hesperus Press Limited 2007, 185 pages
Impenetrable in parts, lyrical in others, describing the love between Toby and Lou Maytrees in such a detached fashion that I never felt close to or really understood any of the characters, this book was not easy to read. I understood the words, but put in sentences and paragraphs there were pages where I felt that somehow the meaning had eluded me. I re-read sentences and pages but still came away feeling puzzled. Thinking back now after I’ve finished reading this book once I’ve got past the awkwardness of the parts that puzzled me and tried to analyse what it is about, I think that it’s about love, and about ageing and dying. I was rather disappointed in this book, having read and enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek some years ago and reading the acclaim it received I expected it to be a fantastic book: the Washington Post quote on the back cover is ‘full of the kind of pleasures one looks for in fiction’. I can’t truthfully say that I found them.
The setting is beautiful, on the beach near Provincetown, Cape Cod in the 1940s. But this is no overdeveloped beach full of tourists; it’s a wilderness of scrub and dunes jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. After 14 years of marriage Maytree left both Lou, his son Petie and his dune shack for Deary Hightoe. Twenty years later he and Deary returned to Provincetown when Deary was dying. Lou then looks after both him and Deary. Deary starts out as a free spirit, sleeping in the dunes swaddled in a canvas sail, but living with Maytree in Maine she becomes weighed down with possessions and “stuff”. The most moving part of the book for me is the description of Deary’s death, which took place over eight weeks.
The characters seem unable to express their feelings or thoughts to each other. Maybe it’s because Lou is such a self-sufficient personality; when Maytree left her, “She did not whine or voice grief or anger.” Maybe it’s because the book covers a period of over twenty years with little information about what has taken place during those years. There is love in there – love of the land, the sea and nature. Human love too in the form of agape, in Lou’s selfless care of both Deary and Maytree.
Maytree ponders on the nature of love after Deary’s death:
“Of course everyone had tended Deary. Was that tending love genetically or socially determined convention? The idea of love as irresistible passion died hard in Maytree long after he knew better. Was he ‘in love’ with Deary all those years? No, but he never dreamed of shipping his iced-over oars. … Still less was Lou in love with Deary. Nor was noble Pete. Then what guides will – reason? The darling of dead Greeks, that guarantor of the science he loved? Surely reason never trafficked in a man’s love life. Science rinsed love’s every scent from its hands. 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?
Wishing and doing, within the realm of the possible, was willing; love was an act of will.”
Love is not seen as a matter of emotion, but a “wilful focus of attention”; it is not like “love’s first feeling of cliff-jumping”. This is not a book about passion in the bodice-ripping, erotic sense. It’s about lasting love: “The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will.” (pages 111-112)
Still I came away from the book feeling a cool detachment from it and not sorry that I’d finished it.