This is my second time reading this book, and I enjoyed it even more than the first. It is a great summertime read, set on the dunes of Cape Cod.
There is no doubt that Dillard's writing is quirky and unexpected, often bizarre or just plain incomprehensible. (I was relieved to read that other reviewers admitted this as well). She references gobs of literature and uses words I have never seen before and some argue do not actually exist. Sometimes this kind of writing can feel snooty, but it feels to me that Dillard writes with a twinkle in her eye, a kind of eccentric energy and academia combined with unexpected common language and self-deprecating humor.
I read that her original manuscript for the Maytrees was 1400 pages, which she edited down to 216 pages. Her prose reads like poetry, and she doesn't waste a single word, doesn't even use quotation marks, so that every sentence feels very purposeful, always unexpected.
The Maytrees is about Toby Maytree, a poet and his wife Lou, a painter ("She lacked a woman's sense of doom. She did what she wanted- like who else on earth? All her life she found dignity overrated. She rolled down dunes). I imagine Dillard dreaming up what would be the absolute perfect beginning to a relationship- and could even this love last? Maytree and Lou are wildly and passionately in love ("Love so sprang in her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it"), living together in a one-room shack on the dunes of Cape Cod where they work only enough to survive, "between them they read about 300 books a year."
The question Dillard seems to be asking, and attempting to answer with this story, is the question Maytree wrestles with at the beginning of their life together, when they are still soaring with love and lust: Was romantic love a modern invention? How long could it last as requited? As unrequited? Does familiarity blur lovers' clear sight of essences and make ers, presumably because the lovers forget and reimagine each other, is love then wholly false? How false?
For even the Maytrees, love eventually does fade. Maytree leaves Lou for their close friend Deary and they move together to Maine. Lou must work-out her loss and eventually is able to think well of Maytree and Deary again. Maytree finds that love with Deary does not last either, but he holds on out of duty. In Maine they work together, she an architect he a builder, and make a lot of money. Eventually Maytree is forced to go back to Lou to request her help in caring for Deary. It is a beautiful story of friendship and forgiveness, perhaps telling the truth about what, in the end, love is.
Along with this is a deeper theme of life and death and dying;
What was it, exactly- or even roughly- that we people are meant to do here? Or, how best use one's short time? . . . All these peoples voted on what we are supposed to do here by portioning their time. . . . Were people missing something? If we are missing something, why the big secret?I love one answer he finds, from an old Mayah book;
The first beings gave thanks to the gods:The Maytrees is a gorgeous book. I would like to have read the other 1200 pages.
-Truly now, double thanks, triple thanks
that we've been formed. We've been given
our mouths, our faces.
We speak, we listen, we wonder,
we move . . . under the sky.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike