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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book Review - Adult - The Maytrees By Annie Dillard

I'm working on several projects right now, so I thought I'd share a book review I wrote a few years ago, that I never tried to get published. It was recommended by a friend and it appealed to the nature lover side of me and was a good introduction to Annie Dillard's writing style.

    Annie Dillard, a solitary, nature loving essayist and poet who waxes toward the philosophical, has written many popular non-fiction narrative books including the Pulitzer prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
(1974). In 1992 she produced her first fiction novel, The Living, one of her lengthier books. Annie Dillard’s shorter second fiction novel, The Maytrees (2007), was teeming with her cherished philosophy. Dillard said in Publishers Weekly that she cut the first draft of 1,400 pages ruthlessly down to its current size of 216 pages. Some propose that she cut too much for the story to succeed, but I disagree. The Maytrees, is an austere book beautifully interwoven with a philosophical exploration of the meaning of love and loss.

A carpenter-poet, Toby Maytree, and a book-loving painter, Lou Bigelow, marry and have a son, Petie. Dillard alerts us to the minimal details early, eloquently referring to Lou and Toby: “She barely said a word. She tongue-tied him.”  The details present are beautifully conveyed in the main character’s thoughts and observations as they read, write poetry, paint, interact with the natural world of their Provincetown, Cape Cod home amid the dunes, and occasionally intermingle with others: “[Petie] had shed that clouds-of-glory, that leaving of fairies glaze by which newborn people keep parents in thrall till other charms appear.”; an enchanting scene where Deary, the local kind-hearted young homeless woman ,“conjure[s]” a seal to touch her painted toes; a wonderfully amusing paragraph describing 11 year-old Petie that I felt compelled to read to each of my family members in turn.

But despite Dillard’s eloquence the story is sparse until Toby leaves Lou and Petie to have a twenty-year affair with Deary, a close friend of the family. The middle of the book tells of Lou’s struggle to stop poisoning herself with feelings of betrayal. She starts to reclaim herself by climbing to the top of a monument and “For only one minute by her watch she saw him for himself.”

Petie, instead, continues hating Toby; throwing away letters unread. After Petie grows up, leaving Lou alone, she deals with her “periodic walk-on role as grieving and piteous victim”,  the “Poor Mom”, by “[giving] her a short hearing to shut her up”. Toby, eventually feels trapped  by guilt over leaving Lou and Petie. Deary, with financial security, becomes a successful architect urging Toby to build her house designs. In one deep passage Toby describes the many bedrooms new people build as “cargo cult, clearing airstrips to attract planes that never came.” Dillard’s story telling  reaches a high point, in the moving scenes that follow Toby finding himself in need Lou’s help.

Through this beautifully moving tale we banquet on  Lou’s and Toby’s philosophical search for the meaning of love, with lines such as “Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the main current of our lives: separation, loss and death. That is the joy of them.” Dillard makes an exhaustive search on the topic of love; dialoguing with Plato, Aristotle, Blake, the Bible, Kafka, Galileo and Tolstoy among many others.

This book demonstrates its simple wisdom in the straightforward plot and the fun, informal characters. Dillard displays her mastery of writing and English by giving us characters that embody the need for such philosophical discussion, trying to make sense of their need for love. Though all the metaphysics causes The Maytrees to be moody and meandering at times, Dillard’s beautiful poetic style and quietly hopeful, understated characters who experience the results of their philosophizing about love and its necessary shadow: loss, carries you through. Just make sure to keep a dictionary handy as any fan of Annie Dillard already knows.

The Maytrees. By Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. $13.95, 216 pages, ISBN:     978-0-06-123954-0
Have you had any books recommended that you would never pick up on your own, but have really loved?


Chris said...

I'm picky about everything, including books, and I've never loved a direct recommendation from someone - even books that sounded great. But I felt like mentioning the joy of finding unexpectedly great books in other ways. One of the best is old, forgotten collections. In recent years, I've been reading old books left in the basement of my wife's family's home - older titles I've never heard of. Two that became awesome page turners were Shadow of the Moon by M. M. Kaye and Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes. (OK, the latter is well known by many, but not by me!). I've tried many things from top-10 lists of many genres, and I usually get bored or disgusted. So finding old gems like this is thrilling! There's a feeling I get in libraries sometimes, knowing that somewhere there's another hidden gem, and nobody's going to know what it will be for me - not even me! But I always have a lot of digging through the disappointments before I find it. I guess it just adds to the thrill.

KC Trae Becker said...

I've had that thrill of excitement at libraries too. Going back to the Messiah College library and standing at the top of the stairs to look over that sea of books is a delicious feeling!