Annie Dillard, The Maytrees
Publisher: HarperCollins
2007, 224 pages, hardcover, $24.95

in eudora welty’s 1974 New York Times review of Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Welty commends Dillard, saying, “There is an ambition about her book that I like, one that is deeper than the ambition to declare wonder aloud. It is the ambition to feel.” In the 2007 reissued edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard reflects upon writing the book, referring to its “excited eloquence” and “metaphysical boldness.” As Dillard’s career enters its fourth decade, her craft has matured. She abandons some of the boldness that accompanied her as a young writer in favor of more simplistic sentences and images. The result: a crisp narrative style that still carries the power to make the reader feel.

The Maytrees, Dillard’s first substantial piece of fiction since 1992’s The Living, aptly showcases her matured style. Set on Cape Cod, the novel weaves the story of Toby and Lou Maytree and their love, marriage, and ultimate separation and reconnection. Jumping chronology, the story also explores the nature of love, death, forgiveness, and acceptance. In contrast to the almost self-important tone set in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard gives little importance to the Maytrees’ story, saying at one point, “The Maytrees performed no heroic deeds, neither Toby nor Lou, and both acted within any decent heart’s scope. They became not constellations but corpses.” Furthermore, unlike Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which Dillard examines in fine detail the microcosms and macrocosms of nature, The Maytrees finds its authority in Dillard’s simplistic, yet poignant, storytelling.

Fortunately for fans of Dillard, her pared-down style retains the same level of human insight that makes her previous works so compelling. However, because Dillard presents The Maytrees as a work of fiction and not nonfiction, which she considers most of her work, she voices many of the novel’s perceptive moments through her characters’ dialogue and thoughts rather than directly addressing the reader. Concerning death, for example, Deary, who engages in a twenty-year affair with Toby Maytree, says,

Another time you bang a knuckle, and maybe twenty years later you pinch its other side. With each injury you learn how that patch of you feels. It wakens. Until it heals, you’re aware of those nerves. […] Every place you injure adds that patch to your consciousness. You grow more alive. And the point of all this is […] that when you have hurt every single place on your body, you die! Once you have felt every last nerve ending, at least on your skin, then you have lived in full awareness. Then you die.

Had The Maytrees been another of Dillard’s nonfiction narratives, insights such as the one above would have been attributed to Dillard talking to the reader. In the case of The Maytrees, however, the reader is tasked with overlooking the improbability of people actually speaking in such an eloquent way.

In addition to Dillard’s capacity for piercing the human condition and drawing from it an almost shamanistic level of insight, another quality still present in her prose is her impulse to ask probing questions. Reflecting on the nature of love, for instance, Toby Maytree ponders, “Why can love, love apparently absolute, recur? And recur? Why does love feel it is-know for certain it is-eternal and absolute, every time?” These questions are never without Dillard’s attempt at answering. Assessing his complicated relationships with Deary and Lou, Toby ultimately details “three explanations of love’s recurrence”:

Perhaps everyone gathers or grows an enormous sack of love he hands whole from one beloved to another. In this instance, the beloved is love’s hat rack. Or, second, perhaps love is delusional. The heart never learns and keeps leaping the length of its life, rising to lures made of rubber hiding hooks. Or, third, perhaps he never really loved Lou, let alone his other girlfriends, and, having learned love by loving, had found in Deary his true mate at last.

Dillard uses her characters’ inquisitive nature both as the impetus for their actions and as the glue that binds the story’s archetypal themes. Also supporting the various thematic threads are anecdotes, which stem from Dillard’s insatiable appetite for facts. In her previous works, her tendency to saturate the narrative with historical and scientific facts directly connects the reader to her passion. Rather than simply reading a book, one imagines stumbling upon Dillard’s journal. Granted, there are several moments in The Maytrees in which the reader senses this familiar authorial hand, most notably one section in which Dillard-as-narrator discusses the “ceremonial holes” of Cape Cod’s Nauset Tribes. For most of the narrative, however, she again turns to her characters, endowing them with her knowledge. For example, discussing death, Toby Maytree describes the mourning rituals of Alaska’s Aleut people:

If you were a prehistoric Aleut and your wife or husband died, your people braced your joints for grief. That is, they lashed hide bindings around your knees, ankles, elbows, shoulders, and hips. You could still move, barely, as if swaddled. Otherwise, the Aleuts said, in your grief you would go to pieces just as the skeleton would go to pieces. You would fall apart.

Whether the reader perceives these instances as heavy-handed, Dillard remains faithful to the Maytrees’ story, which, despite its meandering chronology, finds and keeps its footing in its characters’ day-to-day actions.

Ever since the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, critics have tried to peg Dillard into a specific genre. Many call her an essayist, a label she rejects. Though The Maytrees is unquestionably a novel, the reader who is familiar with Dillard’s work will be rewarded with a provocative story that both reflects her matured writing style and carries with it the influence and weight of her previous work.

-Ben Engel