Through the Trees
Few American writers can describe the ecology of a region quite like Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard. In her slim, poetic new novel, The Maytrees, she turns those descriptive muscles on a man and a woman—lovers bound by their commitment, and the landscape against which their rocky affair unfolded.
Lou Bigelow meets Toby Maytree one summer after World War II in Provincetown, Mass. She is not long out of boarding school, a tall, long-legged beauty with wide-set eyes and a curious mind. He’s even taller, a narrow man with “Mars-colored” hair and a philosopher’s demeanor.
The Maytrees follows their courtship, romance and early marriage with a fine-tuned eye and an amusing ear for the types of fiction one encounters on the way to pairing off.
Lou, for instance, blossoms early and has to put up with the stares and glares of young boys, who strike her “more like bumper cars than people.” After a year’s marriage, Lou’s face was “his eyes’ home.”
The couple’s story moves in fits and starts, just like memory. There are gaps the size of a year or more, and incidents which shine because of their sensual luster—dancing in the kitchen to “Lady Be Good,” for example, or putting their young son, Petie, to bed for the first time.
And then this book breaks your heart. For as good as The Maytrees have it, as beautifully as Dillard describes their love, they let each other down. They lie and are unfaithful. They separate.
This is hardly a page-turning conceit, but Dillard’s books, especially her recent work, has less to do with story than with the layering of detail. She boils down a story, a mood, to its most elemental concern.
So instead of drama, we have the subdued silence of heartbreak. “When her husband returned from the beach walk he took after he told her he was leaving her,” Dillard writes through Lou’s eyes, “he got into their bed as usual. Lou felt his chill.”
The vocabulary of The Maytrees is almost entirely drawn from the natural world. Its most vivid scenes are sanded down like the salt marsh houses that sit upon the dunes surrounding Provincetown.
In the fallow period after the Maytrees’ separation, the book is full of ice and wind, snow. It's as if the Maytrees—through their own decision—are buried in permafrost, waiting to thaw.
Shortly after Toby leaves, Lou has a period of abusing herself. In another perfect scene, Lou “climbed the steep street to Pilgrim Monument. She mounted the monument stairs in her camel hair’s coat and red earmuffs. From the top she looked at flat sky, flat sea, flat land. She was ready to stop this.”
Dillard is best known for her 1974 work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the story of her observations of living on a creek in West Virginia. “The secret of seeing,” she once wrote, “is soaring on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit, till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest.”
Like Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who lives and writes from a similar part of America as this book takes place, Dillard recognizes the power of repetition. She knows the appeal of simplicity and stillness, even in depicting a passage of life which is full of screams.
Scrapbook style, The Maytrees carries on. We see how Toby deals with the guilt of starting over, without his family. Dillard catches us up on the progress of Pete (he drops the “i”) as he travels further now, almost like an emissary.
And gradually this story pulls to a close that is hardly expected. All along The Maytrees reminds us of the smallness of human lives. “Tomorrow is another day only up to a point,” Dillard writes.
These characters—this life—will not last forever, which is why our greatest task is to be mindful. It is a lesson this book underscores with every one of its exquisite sentences.