I first encountered Annie Dillard's lyrical attention to the environment in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a meditation on nature and life in the shadow of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. In The Maytrees, Dillard's new novel, she again accomplishes a poetic incorporation of time and place. The setting is post-World War II Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the plot revolves around Lou Bigelow, an Ingrid Bergman look-alike, and Toby Maytree, a poet, bohemians who marry early in life, separate, and then find each other again after a 20-year hiatus.
A professor once told me that the best writers are those who conduct extensive research. "Chapters of reading," she said, "may appear only as a sentence or phrase in the finished work." If that's a benchmark for exceptional prose, then Dillard gets an A-plus. In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, the author admitted to compiling 300 files of data on mid-20th-century Provincetown. Furthermore, The Maytrees, now only a shade over 200 pages, peaked at 1,400 pages before Dillard started cutting. "The story wouldn't bear it," she said. "You can't pile all this stuff on the back of a frail couple."
The result of her editing process is a charming treatise on the nature of love—more specifically, on letting love go and allowing it to come back to you. And the plot's time and place are rendered so vividly the reader feels she could be clamming right alongside Lou, Toby, and their artist friends, with Cape Cod's dunes in the distance—"just that stretch of sand the coastwise current picked up from crumbling cliffs to the south and dropped here in a spiral," writes Dillard.
Toby and Lou do well together for 14 years. They have a child, Pete, and live simply—reading, writing poetry, cooking, and enjoying the unhurried pace of Provincetown. But Toby grows restless and leaves Lou for their friend Deary Hightoe. Toby and Deary then run off to Maine.
For any woman or man who's been left behind for another, Lou's subsequent ability to wholeheartedly forgive Toby (and Deary) may seem farfetched. But Dillard paints Lou as an unusual—and unusually wise—woman. (This is a person, after all, who, on her death day, has the foresight to braid her hair, lie down, and place her arms across her chest.) Lou decides she won't let Toby's abandonment destroy her the way her father's desertion left her mother embittered for the remainder of her life. "She had many decades more to live. Whether she lived them or not was her call." And so every day Lou climbs Pilgrim Monument, a 252-foot tower with a view of the sea, and lets Toby go: "She had nothing else to do. She loosed Maytree like sand. Their years together were good. He was already gone."
When Toby returns 20 years later seeking Lou's help in caring for an ailing Deary, she selflessly takes them in. While Deary fails, Lou and Toby fall into comfortable patterns that ultimately bring them together again: "She crept up and put her arms around his waist from behind. Instantly, one of his hands…covered hers…. How she had enjoyed having him around, his easy competence and camaraderie."
For those who ponder or dream of a late-in-life reconciliation with a former spouse or lover, this novel will appeal immensely for its simple yet profound story. And for those interested in Dillard's eloquence, superhuman research efforts, and hundred-dollar word choices, The Maytrees will also not disappoint.
Mimi Kirk is an assistant research editor at AARP The Magazine.