Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees [spoiler alert], begins with a short prologue from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely noticed. Its first sentence interestingly begins with the couple not the individuals: “The Maytrees were young long ago.” Although it’s difficult to grasp on the first read, these four and a half pages tell, in a fairytale way, the story of the novel.
After the prologue is a preface, written in the point of view of Toby Maytree, that begins with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals: “It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.” This sentence in this point of view foreshadows the later division of the Maytrees by Toby.
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—some told by Lou, some by Maytree, and some by the narrator—in which Maytree courts Lou, they marry, and have a child. Then, the reader turns the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One.” This innovative structure is a way of saying you thought that was the story but now we’re getting to the real story. Apparently the preface consisted of nine unmarked, short chapters.
Here’s the first sentence of Part One: “That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.” Later that day in real time (five pages later) the reader learns Maytree is leaving Lou to go to Maine with their friend Deary. Part One consists of six unmarked chapters and covers the time period it take Lou to become “happier and wiser,” to discover “that steady ground”—six months: from “that winter” to “one cold June morning.”
The novel continues with an Interlude of eight short unmarked chapters, the first of which is narrated by the Maytrees’ son Pete, that covers the twenty years—the interlude—Lou and Maytree spend apart.
Part Two is divided into five unmarked sections. In the first one, again narrated by Pete, Pete reconciles with his father. Then Deary becomes bedridden and Maytree slips on ice, becoming incapable of caring for them. He travels from Maine back to Provincetown to ask for Lou’s help.
Part Three begins with Pete carrying Deary into his mother’s house. It’s four short, unmarked sections that cover six months and Deary’s death.
The Maytrees concludes with an Epilogue in two short sections. In the first one, Lou and Maytree live together “many new years.” The second one begins “Tomorrow is another day only up to a point. One summer five years later Maytree began to die all over the place.”
Dillard uses structure to clue the reader as to the real story, which in this case is not the courtship or the marriage of the Maytrees, but the much more interesting story of what happens after that: their breakup, how Lou got over Maytree…
She was ready to want to stop this. Thereby she admitted—barely—that she could choose to stop…She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task…Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go.
…and discovered her own life, as well as the story of two individuals who were, through whatever happened, the Maytrees…
Now in compassion they bore, between them, their solitudes each the size of the raveled globe.
Finally, if you’re not convinced, take a look at these words from page 22 about Maytree’s third book:
(After the book appeared, a poem in three parts, no one noticed its crucial—to him—structure. At thirty he feared being obvious….
Some of this post–what I understood about the structure from my 1st read–also appeared in my 1st post on The Maytrees.