Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Maytrees: a review of Annie Dillard's book

Is Annie Dillard a philosopher? A poet? A naturalist? Or a storyteller?
It's difficult to determine by the reading of her most recently penned novel, The Maytrees. Of those four distinctions, Annie's storytelling seems to be the weakest, apparently used only as a vehicle by which she might display her other gifts.

The novel is billed as a love story, the romantic history of Lou and Toby Maytree. Dialogue is spare, almost non-existent. In its place we are invited to share the inner ruminatings of the poet Toby and the quiet Lou as they seek their entire adult lives to make sense of love, the shortness of life, and the big questions: How do we make our brief moments count? What is it we are meant to do? Does love come as a gift, or is it an act of will?

I could follow some of the philosophical threads in the story but kept feeling that I was not grasping enough to make sense of it. Is beauty enough? What happens to our cache of knowledge and experience when we die? I felt unsatisfied when the main characters did not come to any final conclusions. The threads of thought seemed never to be woven together, but were left to dangle so that at the end I was left with a big question mark.

The story line was not compelling, the characters were not fully developed, the philosophy was tangled and enigmatic. So what kept me reading this story?

I suppose in the end it was the love of words that kept me reading, because while Annie lacks as a storyteller, she more than compensates as a wordsmith. Her descriptions of the Cape Cod beach, the flora, the fauna, the night sky, the dunes--paint a multi-layered work of beauty, stroke-by-stroke. She has an unusual way of turning words, rather poetical, which for me required slow reading and focused attention.

I'm including some of the quotes that stood out to me.

Will I read more of Annie Dillard? I might read her almost classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek because I know that to be her thoughts on nature, where she truly excels as a writer. But another novel? No.

The quotes:

Of Lou, the quiet woman:

"After their first year or so, Lou's beauty no longer surprised him. He never stopped looking, because her face was his eyes' home."

"Her mental energy and endurance matched his. She neither competed nor rebelled. Her freedom strengthened him, as did her immeasurable reserve."

Of Maytree, the poet:

"He endorsed Edwin Arlington Robinson's view that anthologies preserve poems by pickling their corpses."


"What gave adults the cheer to tolerate their hypocrisy? Even his mother praised generosity and hoarded; she preached industry and barely worked. Perhaps every generation passes to the next, to hand down to yet more children, an untouched trunk of virtues. The adults describe the trunk's contents to the young and never open it."

On beauty:

"In her last years Lou puzzled over beauty....She never knew what to make of it. Certainly nothing in Darwin, in chemical evolution, in optics or psychology or even cognitive anthropology gave it a shot. (snip) Philosophy ...had trivialized itself right out of the ballpark. Nothing rose to plug the gap, to address what some called 'ultimate concerns' unless you count the arts, the arts that lacked both epistemological methods and accountability..." -------->

This last quote makes me so thankful for the gift of faith. My faith "plugs the gap" and although some would call it simplistic, I'm grateful that it keeps me from the tortured mental gymnastics that must weary great minds devoid of faith. Keep me simple.