Book review: The Maytrees

Some books I review; others I re-read. Annie Dillard’s novel “The Maytrees” is in the second, smaller category. After my first reading, I don’t feel capable of reviewing it now–and I may not after ten readings. It’s that kind of book.

It’s a simple story about a couple, about a family, about a community, and about a place–the tip of Cape Cod, “that exposed and mineral sandspit,” as the first paragraph makes clear. One of the couple makes a choice, and the family and community recoil and rearrange in its wake. In the end, does it matter? Does anything?

Meanwhile the tide continues to come in and go out, the waves pound the sand, the stars spin and the seasons cycle. “Replaceable gulls. For all she knew, she had seen the same gulls over and over,” Lou Maytree observes at the end of the book.

The characters, their interactions, and their awareness of their ocean-dominated place vacillate between deeply loving and brutally honest. Human days unfold against a bleak beauty, which is beautiful because of its bleakness. Does the beauty care? And is the human beautiful? Bitter, yes. Forgiving, as well.

A thousand years are but a day, it seems. Or at least 20 years, in Lou’s experience. The quiet of her unspoken mind, even when she is deeply unsettled, calls to me.

This morning, I was running. I looked down into a small valley, a bowl of green vegetation with an unseen body of water flowing through it, and I wondered, do I have to do anything? Do I need to sign in to work this morning? What is a career for? Lou makes a career of thinking in “The Maytrees.” Often, lately, I’m tempted to do what she does for a life: live in a place and watch the place and its business—the gulls and the crabs and the tides and the waves and the vacationers from more populous places—ebb and flow. The thought brings me peace.

This setting and its story are as spare and essential as Dillard’s refined prose. This book is like a tent made of the very best material and ingenious design, packing a whole dwelling down into a piece of art I am going to take with me and set up and live in again.