Friday, January 15, 2010

In The Maytrees, Annie Dillard creates a love story in Cape Cod’s natural beauty, mixing her lyrical talents with classical poets, philosophers and an almanac. Principal characters Toby and Lou Maytree are tender and intense in their love for each other, explored by Dillard through metaphors of the ocean and sky and hardly a word from either character. “Her depth he knew when he kissed her. His brain lobes seemed to part like clouds over the sun,” (The Maytrees, 33) allowing for his love for her – or her love for him? – to nestle between dura mater and layer every rational thought with an poetic, indulgent one.

Dillard gives the reader cheekily accurate glimpses into each character’s mettle without revealing how crucial each heart is to the progress and sustenance of the story. “He fell in love with Lou again and again,” she writes of Toby Maytree, while Lou “seemed, then and now, to roll or float over the world evenly, acting and giving and taking, never accelerating, never slowing, wearing a slip of red or blue scarf,” (46). Just as Toby is distracted by his love for Lou, so is the reader distracted by Toby’s endearing appetite for his new wife, unaware of what happens fourteen years later. However, it is the latter sentence that lasts throughout the book; Lou is guided by her even temper for the rest of her married life – with and without her husband.

Dillard, like the Maytrees, approaches love as an “epistemological tool” (53), comparing emotions and reactions to Jupiter’s moons, constellations and the essence of “beauty laid bare” (The Writing Life). When their son Petie is injured while riding his bicycle, his parents move their bed to the basement where their son can rest. Their bed and its purpose are displaced: it attends to a new resident as Toby attends to another woman – Deary! – in Maine. His insistence that he will always love Lou throws her off her three-wheeled family-circle: “Fast as shock she knew now what, what alone could come next, and her blood in every vessel tripped. Not her Maytree. Never her Maytree, who loved her, as he just unsaid,” (65).

The rift in the Maytree family allows the reader to see each character ponder his / her thoughts without interference from others. Toby repeatedly questions the recurrence of love, partners, companionship. “Her silence was paper on which he wrote. She always thought and felt precisely what he hoped. She loved making him happy. Was he his own or not?” (72) he wonders painstakingly, faced with a “love unlooked-for,” (100) with Deary. Lou erects a routine to replace Toby’s void and climbs Pilgrim Monument daily, to achieve “a grip on letting go,” (93). Petie grows into “Pete, who pondered facts,” (95) and resents his father for the next twenty years. Lou’s death 39 years later is addressed amidst this cacophony of contemplation – Dillard is brief and quiet, upholding Lou’s silent dignity. The section ends with a one-page hint that old friends Deary and Lou are reunited – what about Toby? Their meeting is announced, fittingly, by the clouds, several pages later.

Toby and Deary’s relocation to Maine introduces a new vocabulary to the story. Physically, “Maine’s beauty was not of sky but of earth. Sunlight hit black spruces and died, or sprawled in fields,” (102). Their entrepreneurial relationship means secondary jobs (lobstering, Deary suggests with twinkling eyes) take priority over poetry. Dillard sounds critical of their revamped lifestyle, complaining that they “wasted their many-paned dining room on dinner parties instead of ongoing games and music,” (118). They live a noisier life, but Dillard maintains her muted, descriptive writing filter and the narrative never becomes loud.

Back in Cape Cod, Lou remains connected to Toby. She reads a published poem and notices that from his “usual poetic line he had subtracted a foot. Perhaps the cold took his breath away,” (106), respecting her husband’s adaptation to a new life. Another time,

Lou felt a friendly greeting from Maytree in Maine. She felt his surprise jig several times a year. Did it rebound from that old blackboard the moon? Hallo, she said back like Toad, amused. (133)

Petie-turned-Pete-turned-father finally visits Toby and Deary and is a new man before returning to his boat, wife and child.

Inevitably, Toby returns to his wife and child, too with an ailing Deary. Toby is injured and knows his only hope is to ask Lou to help him care for Deary, but he arrives at his decision after futilely muddling through non-existent options. He returns to his beaches to appeal to his wife. Lou has already felt something stirring in the sky earlier that day; a “flying wedge of cirrus was coming in high,” (157). The tables have turned: Toby is speechless and Lou wraps his silence with her words of welcome and familiarity. Dillard expertly depicts a worn out Toby, unsure of a woman he last saw twenty years ago: “Come in, his ex-own Lou said, and he saw her oval face, her wide eyes still affectionate, or affectionate again, or affectionate by habit. Or she didn’t recognize him,” (197).

The Maytrees’ bed hosts its next patient for the eight weeks Deary competes with life before losing. As her health declines, Toby and Lou revive their dormant relationship, pausing their inevitable companionship to take out the garbage and “breathe[d] the wind," (176). Pete’s family assists with caretaking and the Maytree family regularly gather around the woman who first rendered them apart; she refused to fight love and now refuses to fight death. Dillard pays homage to the town’s bay tides, which “amazed them again. Bay tides re-created the world, stink and all,” (204) and revives the friendship and natural passion Toby, Lou and the rest of Cape Cod live by for a reflective, sound ending to a timeless love story.

Book: THE MAYTREES by Annie Dillard. Published by Harper Collins, 2007.

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