Margaret Murray's Reviews > The Maytrees

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
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Recommended for: Provincetown fans, Buddhists, scientists



There are three reasons I picked up The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Provincetown, Marriage and Pittsburgh, Pa. The book cover itself-- bare bones, plain white background, the title and author’s name in green ink, speaks to another theme of the novel--a deliberate shunning of book marketing PR culture? Or is it the reverse--thumbing your nose at the New York Times best books list to get my attention? Maybe both.

The Maytrees is a story of marriage that takes place after WWII in Provincetown, MA, marriage as seascape, seen through Dillard’s cultured scientist/naturalist’s eyes.

As for the couple themselves, what Toby Maytree loved most about Lou was her laugh (she rarely talked or shared her thoughts). What Lou loved about Toby was his simplicity and sex (I think that’s the gist of it); Lou describes herself as “shipwrecked on the sheets” and accepts his attentions completely. They have one son, Pete, a normal boy who becomes a fisherman, who Toby and Lou love dearly as they seemingly love each other.

The Maytrees is also a diorama of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the iconic artist’s colony on the tip of Cape Cod, where the marriage takes place. Marriage is not exactly in one’s mind when you think of P-town, noted for its wild, weird characters cum artists, Eugene O’Neil Theater, sexual license (historically gay), and fresh fish. It’s the Rave party of artists’ colonies by the sea.

I had been in Provincetown, first as a waitress, the second time as a writing fellow in the acclaimed Writers Workshop. That winter I spent in P-town posing as the writer I wanted to become, I might have met the reclusive couple, sometime artist, Lou, and Toby Maytree, poet and house mover.

The setting of The Maytrees subsumes any plot. Pristine, unique descriptions rise and fall on the pages like the surf. We witness sunrise over the ocean, snow on the dunes, and the narrow town on the curled hooked spit of Cape Cod. This rare seascape surpasses the “townies”, artists and never-mentioned tourists who are no more than mere sea urchins washed up by the tide.

Couples lurked in the background that winter I spent in Provincetown too. Eccentric, alluring, stylish, cultured driven writers and painters with their boyfriend, girlfriend, wife or husband on their arm. I met charming, long-married artist couples nearly every night at parties they hosted. Most were much older, reaching out to us young artists from their charming New England or conversely stark, SOHO-type lofts, homes, cottages or townhouses. The locals and hangers-on came to their parties too, adding to the succulent gossip of the next new sea-struck day.

I don't know if Annie Dillard lived in Provincetown, but both she and I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa. on the same East Side. I probably passed her in the halls on my way to meet a 7th grader I tutored in the Ellis Library of the school she attended, several blocks away from mine. She would have been living her first book, the successful memoir, American Childhood, A Writing Life that I devoured twenty-five years later. Neither of us would have been married yet.

The Maytrees have a marriage made in heaven. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, catastrophe falls--the usual adultery, abandonment, and betrayal. Lou’s best friend, the wild, blueblood, gregarious Deary, breaks up the marriage, if you can call it a breakup. There’s no fighting, no discussion, no tears, no rancor. Just plain old pain for Lou and I don’t know what for Toby, the instigator.

Let’s just say in her novel, Annie Dillard, a naturalist as well as writer, has spawned a rare, gentle deviant to the marriage of two minds. If marriage is the message, in The Maytrees, it’s rolled up in a bottle you have to search for. In her special P-town light, Dillard illuminates the often hidden truth that any marriage results in old age and death and, maybe, the Maytrees can embrace that too.
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Reading Progress

August 24, 2013 – Started Reading
September 2, 2013 – Finished Reading
September 11, 2013 – Shelved

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