'The Maytrees': short on action, long on meaning

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 18, 2008

“The Maytrees,” by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 216 pp. $14.95 paperback.
By Cindy Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
While I was reading “The Maytrees,” a friend asked me about the plot. That was actually a surprisingly difficult question. There is very little action in Annie Dillard’s novel.
In response to my friend’s question, I replied, “I’m reading a book about people who read.” That’s really the heart of this novel. At every instance, the main characters look for the answers to life’s problems in their books. They search for answers about love, forgiveness, death and life’s meaning among more minor problems.
The plot of “The Maytrees” is surprisingly simple. Dillard tells the story of Lou and Toby Maytree, a couple from Provincetown, Mass. Toby is a poet, but he makes a living moving houses. Lou is a painter and later a full-time mother. They live a simple, quiet life.
The Maytrees spend much of their free time reading. They also spend quite a bit of time with their eclectic group of friends. When Toby abandons Lou for their mutual friend, Deary, Lou remains in Provincetown with their son.
Toby’s affair lasts 20 years and finally ends with Deary’s death. Along the way, Lou ponders the meaning of love and its many forms. When Toby arrives on her doorstep with the dying Deary, Lou welcomes them and ultimately cares for her husband’s mistress. Lou and Toby fall back into a comfortable relationship until his death.
Much of the action in this novel is internal. It occurs in the minds of the main characters. There are only a few major events in the plot. After each major event, Lou and Toby sink back into their books.
A statement by Lou near the end of the novel sums up her reliance on literature, “Books must know something.” In reality, Lou is the one who discovers something. She finds an inner strength that contrasts sharply with her weak work ethic. Her forgiveness of Toby is both shocking and moving. The few major events develop the characters beyond their intense reading habits.
Dillard has created intriguing characters. Lou and Toby Maytree both remain somewhat enigmatic, despite the emphasis on their internal dialogues. They maintain a colorful circle of friends that provide much of the novel’s humor. The complex relationships between the Maytrees and their friends seem simple when compared to their own relationship. Their twisted path of love, friendship and forgiveness serves as a source of inspiration for Toby’s poetry and a source of inner conflict for Lou.
Love itself functions as a character, as well. It serves as the catalyst for both the internal and external conflicts of the novel. The mystery of love baffles and inspires Toby. It takes a different form for Lou. She focuses on the transforming power of love. Both Maytrees devote time and thought to the study of love.
The language of “The Maytrees” is sparse, yet elegant. Dillard maintains simplicity in her sentence structure, but peppers the novel with literary and classical references. At times, her terse dialogue seems reminiscent of Hemingway’s short stories.
Dillard also makes use of an extensive vocabulary. I reached for my dictionary more than once. This is certainly not light reading, but it is somewhat addictive. I found it very difficult to put this book down despite the narrow plot.
“The Maytrees” is a compelling novel. There is surprisingly little action, but Dillard makes up for this with fascinating characters and beautiful language. This is an intriguing bit of fiction about “people who read” written for real people who read.
Cindy Murphy reads and writes in Salisbury.