The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard

Despite the laudatory comments on the covers and its self-proclaimed best-seller status, I found this book to be deeply flawed. It is a love story, the story of Lou and Toby Maytrees. The two meet in Provincetown in the 1930s, fall in love and marry, but that is just the beginning of their tale. I usually feel frustrated reading stories that end with marriage because the whole chasing-catching-marrying thing is much less interesting to me than what comes after the wedding. So I was pretty happy that Dillard concentrates on the long life after the cake is cut and the dishes washed.

However, I was less happy about the self-consciously poetic style of the book, jumping around in time, providing an impressionistic narrative that I sometimes found difficult to follow. The structure was quite odd: both a preface and a prologue that together constituted a third of the book, and then three uneven sections. I was also less happy with the labored attempts to come up with original imagery. Sentences like “Twice a day behind their house the tide boarded the sand. Four times a year the seasons flopped over” would get a less-famous writer laughed out of the room.

I was astounded by Dillard's first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which seemed a whole new way of writing about the natural world, mixing humor, reflection, and emotion. The few of her later books that I've read haven't reached that acme, but have had moments of gorgeous writing. Here, too, are some lovely bits, especially about Provincetown and the way of life there in the middle of the 20th century.

Yet the story as a whole rings false to my ears. The young couple decides that free time is more important than possessions, so they choose not to work. It helps that they have inherited a big house in town and a shack on the beach. And somehow, with no money, they never seem to have a problem with taxes or food or heat or medical bills for the baby that soon arrives. Perhaps I am just not poetic enough, but I can't help wondering how the heck they get by.

In their later life, Toby does actually work and money becomes a bigger factor in his life. Lou, on the other hand, appears to be the epitome of a Zen monk, open to the world, unencumbered by self, desires, etc. Easy enough to free yourself from desires, I can't help but think, when you're getting a generous alimony check and free housing. It's hard to be open to the universe when you can't pay the heating bill.

Maybe I'm being too picky. I heard Dillard interviewed at the International Authors Festival in Toronto a few years ago and was appalled by her behavior. She refused to sit in the armchair provided, insisting on standing behind it. She deliberately upstaged the author interviewing her, forcing him to turn his back on the audience. When he tried to come level with her, she moved further upstage. She made fun of his questions and treated him with disdain. I don't know if she had a beef with that particular author or if she is that rude in all of her interviews, but I do know that I've never seen a grown person behave like such a brat. I try not to let what I know about the author influence my reading, but I'm not always successful.

In the end, despite the moments of lovely description, the story was simply too light and unrealistic to hold my interest for long.

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