the maytrees

Annie Dillard published her most recent book, The Maytrees, a novel, in 2007. The cover of the paperback has recessed letters that I can feel with my eyes closed and uneven pages that make me think the book was created by a real person. It’s interesting, I think, coming from me that the unevenness makes me think of a real person.

On the inside are characters I can see with my eyes closed and imperfect lives that echo our own. The Maytrees is the story of two individuals who came together once upon a time in a place I love–Provincetown.

The following sentence from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely seen begins the four-and-a-half-page prologue:

“The Maytrees were young long ago.”

There’s also a preface, which starts out with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals:

“It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.”

After the preface, there’s a page break and the apparent first sentence of the novel in which the narrative distance has shrunk yet again:

“Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack.”

Or is it the first sentence? What follows those words are what appear to be eight unmarked, short chapters. Then, you turn the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One,” and this first sentence:

“That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.”

I wonder if this is a way of saying you needed to know all that came before but now we’re getting to the real story. The novel continues with an Interlude, Part Two, Part Three, and finally an Epilogue, which includes a space break and another short section.

My favorite passage comes right before Part Two and shows Lou discovering who she is:

“The one-room ever-sparer dune shack was her chief dwelling…Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox. In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a pinata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.

And then toward the end of the book, after a certain event, she discovers something else about herself:

“She bade her solitude good-bye. Good-bye no schedule but whim; good-bye her life among no things but her own and each always in place; good-bye no real meals, good-bye free thought. The whole flat flock of them flapped away. But what was solitude for if not to foster decency?

So much to say about this one, but for now I’ll leave you here.

21 thoughts on “the maytrees

  1. Oh my!

    I am in awe of this imagery: With those blows she opened her days like a pinata. A hundred freedoms fell on her.

    Another book to add to my TBR stack. I’ve decided there’s too much good fiction waiting to spend any more time reading writing manuals. I’ll learn by osmosis.

    Thank you for pointing me to this book, Cynthia.

    • I know, there are just too many books. I have about ten I’d like to be reading now all at one time.

      The Maytrees starts out with a kind of distant, brusque tone but Dillard keeps pulling you in with details as we get closer and closer to the characters. I wish I could read it again right now to put a little more time into it.

  2. I just started this book a few days ago. I’m taking my time with it, luxuriating in it, really. (In fact, I have a blog post brewing in my mind about just this kind of reading experience and how it brushes up against my ideas of being a “good” reader — a.k.a. “fast.”) I was just thinking today how there is something sparse about the beginning of the book (I’m only 20 pages in), but also something so dense and rich.

    • Jenna, that–as in the slow-luxuriating-read–is the way I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Imperfect Birds, but it’s the way I wish I’d read The Maytrees. Now I want to read The Maytrees again. I’d like to try to match the structure to the content…

      I agree with you about the sparse tone at the beginning–I called it brusque in my reply to Linda above. In fact, I didn’t like it at first. But now, as I reread sections at the beginning, it almost reads like poetry. And the tone is perfectly matched to the character of Lou.

      If you have time, come back and leave a comment after you finish. Or if you write a post, leave us the link.

  3. Like Linda’s previous comment, the quote about the pinata really caught me.

    Sounds like a thought provoking book, both in the story telling as in the arrangement of the story (sounds like it is one where you need to read into it, further and further, to figure out what the story really is).

    Thanks for the review!

    • Terresa, you’re right. The more I read of The Maytrees, the more what-the-story-was-about kept shifting–and getting bigger. I guess this is one way the structure echoes the story. You think you’re reading the novel–and then you turn the page to discover Part One and that the “story” is just beginning.

  4. Wow! This novel sounds so original. I too loved that pinta quotation although the kite metaphor that follows is overkill. I value skilled writing but not if it eclipses the story with its dynamics.

    I love the way you talk about what moves you, especially your comment of how the uneven pages make you think of a real person. I know you’re a big fan of Dillard, but which of all her novels is your favorite? I’ve only read her excellent book on writing, The Writing Life (which titled your blog.)

    BTW, I just bought Natalie Merchants new album and Edinburgh by Alexander Chee after reading about them on your blog.

    • Sarah, you make a good point about the kite metaphor, although I looked at the excess here as a sign of the character’s euphoria. I became a big fan of Dillard–confession–after reading only The Writing Life. However, I recently also read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (nonfiction), which I will be referring to periodically. I’m not a nature girl (or woman) for that matter. Still, I love some of her observations and cannot believe she wrote this book at age 27. It seems she was always, as they say, an old soul. One of my favorite passages:

      “So. I have been thinking about the change of seasons. I don’t want to miss spring this year…I want to be there on the spot the moment the grass turns green. I always miss this radical revolution;…But it occurred to me that I could no more catch spring by the tip of the tail than I could untie the apparent knot in the snakeskin; there are no edges to grasp. Both are continuous loops.” (75)

      So glad you’re going to read Edinburgh and listen to Leave Your Sleep! I look forward to your thoughts on both of these.

      • Leave Your Sleep, ha, I’d forgotten the title of the album but it fits the creative insomnia that has been plaguing me as you might have guessed from the typos in my last comment. I slept really well last night so I’m ready to write today. I’ll have to check out that other memoir because I am a country girl. I’m also a city girl, just not a suburban girl. Off to walk the dog in the sunny woods first. Have a beautiful and productive day!

  5. I’m curious as to why she bade her solitude good-bye. I’m at a point in my life where I’m pounding the pinanta. So I really look forward to your next post. Though I’m reading and enjoying Larry’s Kidney right now, I may have to run out and buy The Maytrees, so it’s on the nightstand when I finish.

    • Darrelyn, you’ll have to read the book to find out why she bade her solitude good-bye—I’m not going to tell you : ) And I definitely recommend The Maytrees for your nightstand!

  6. I’ve tried twice to read this book–I have a different but beautiful white book jacket –but it was too slow for me. Now that I’ve read your post, I can understand a little clearer the motive and will have to give it another try.

    • Tricia, sometimes when I find a book is too slow, I wonder if I’m just not in the right mood for it at that moment. I never found this one slow, but I did think the tone was a little difficult at first–like someone who doesn’t want you to get to know them. But it softens up over time. Not every book is for everyone, but you might want to give this one a second chance.

  7. Thank you Cindy! I haven’t commented before, but I want you to know how much I love this blog. And I now want to read this book. I didn’t love The Living, so I haven’t read any more of Annie Dillard’s fiction, but you’ve convinced me. And the structure sounds really interesting.

    • Patricia, thank you for your nice comments about the blog. It’s fun to see you here. I definitely recommend The Maytrees, and if you read it, please let me know what you think. At first I didn’t like it so I read quickly. Now I want to read it again…

  8. Pingback: the person underneath | catching days

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  10. I have just read and reread this book, and find it incredibly rich, for all its spare and strange language.
    And having spent a fair amount of time in Provincetown, I’m wondering about the setting for Maytree’s dune shack. On Route 6 heading into town, there are large dunes to the right, beyond which, I think, is the start of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Did Dillard set it there, do you think, or somewhere in the West End of town, facing north to the ocean instead of south? Thank you.

    • Gatto, your comment makes me want to read The Maytrees all over again… I read it before I’d spent much time in Provincetown and before I’d ever found the dune shacks that are sprinkled along the coast on the right side of Route 6 as you’re coming in to Provincetown. So, although my guess is she set it in one of those, I don’t really remember enough details of the book to know if that makes sense. So I am no help to you…although it is on my list to write a post about those dune shacks. I’m so happy you not only read the book but reread it and that you found my words about it. –cynthia

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