Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard ~ Review

File:Beach erosion at Pea island national wildlife refuge.jpgThe windswept dunes of Provincetown, Mass., are a symbolic setting for the story of Toby Maytree, Lou Bigelow Maytree, Deary Hightoe, and their bohemian friends. Their home—this narrow spit of sand at the tip of Cape Cod—survives vicious gales, deep, swirling snows, and shifting shapes. Despite often inhospitable conditions, post-World War II inhabitants find life and make steadfast lives there. In The Maytrees, author Annie Dillard poetically describes decades of tidal rhythms and constant constellations. Like the tides and stars, the characters’ lives change, but the characters remain true to who they are.

Other than saying The Maytrees is a story of longtime loving friendships, I hesitate to reveal much else about the plot. Instead, I’ll share a few of my impressions. This is a beautifully written book, as befits a story about an artists’ colony. Toby wrote four book-length poems and three books of lyrics. He was well-educated and liked to discuss philosophy. Lou painted, and I could easily imagine Dillard’s descriptions of how Lou saw the dunes as her paintings. Lou knew three languages but rarely spoke any of them. Toby’s courtship of Lou—he first inviting her to his beach shack and she shyly approaching it—was sweet. Vagabond Deary played drums in a seaside restaurant and slept in a rolled-up sail in the dunes. The easy relationships formed among these and other artistic folks who had chosen unconventional lifestyles stood the test of time.

Dillard’s spare prose told me just enough. At times it was dense though with challenging vocabulary. Despite this, her lyrical language swept me up in night sky, moonlight on seafoam, wonder of new love, purity of simple living—and just when I was thinking this is lovely but I’m not getting emotionally attached to any characters—something happened that made me so mad, I couldn’t sleep at all the night I read it. So I guess Dillard had also swept me into the story.

The Maytrees organically offers contrasts between walking in nature’s glorious beauty and trotting on the treadmill of materialism, between isolation and community, between gracefully adapting to and enjoying nature’s cycles and forcing oneself into society’s unceasing, seasonless expectations, between emptiness and fulfillment, between the Milky Way and the “low-ceilinged cave most Americans lived in unknowingly.” [p. 132]

Later in life, selfless Lou Maytree volunteers at a nursing home, where she accepts residents’ self-centeredness as human nature, but rankles at their not having learned lessons from life experiences. At first, this seemed dissonant to me. If I were as selfless as Lou, I might be especially impatient with others’ selfishness. But on second thought, this detail about Lou reveals that like a sweet, lavender beach pea blossom nestled in undulating sand ripples, forgiveness has truly found a home in her heart. Also, Lou knew that living in the hush rather than the rush, taking time simply and slowly to know and love—and observe and think—is a better way to wisdom. attribution: blmcalifornia