The Maytrees: A Novel
The Maytrees: A Novel
Annie Dillard
Harper, 2007
216 pp., $24.95

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Reviewed by Thomas Gardner

Cradling the World

Annie Dillard's The Maytrees.

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 The twenty years apart pass in what seems a few pages, and part 2 describes what brings Lou and Maytree, still in love, back together. Deary's health deteriorates—in her late sixties, a leaking mitral valve brings her to congestive heart failure—and Maytree tends her. Though he never really loved her, he has honored the commitment running away with her represented, comparing it to wrapping his hands around oars on a cold sea, icing them fast, and continuing to row. Carrying her through the snow to a doctor's appointment, he slips, tosses her to safety in a snow bank, and breaks both arms, his ribs, wrist, and thumb: "His X-rays looked like the Tungsta event, the Siberian forest after a meteorite hit." Unable to care for himself or Deary, he returns to Lou, depositing Deary at the house and walking the beach at night to present himself at the shack. Lou agrees to help and, in part 3, they nurse Deary through the eight weeks of her dying, ministering to her as she "chars and buckles like a leaf." This is unexpected and deeply affecting, and it gives Dillard a way of exploring the "moral stance" that Lou had crafted out of her charged abandonment, an awareness not just of the world's brilliant intensities but of human dignity as well.

 Maytree expects to leave after Deary's death, but he finds himself back in the original relationship, swept along by Lou's growth, "her immense solitude so gloriously … broached" by this series of events. More years pass. Together, the two of them, once opened to the holy and the real and then exiled from it, find themselves charged once again with restoring the world by taking a small part of it into their shared, knowing embrace: "They enfolded each other and looked over each other's shoulders at the world's wreck where all shattered, at bareness they held at bay. Or they cradled the world between them like a mortally sick child, loving it and not telling it all they knew."

 This is a powerful, bare novel, with four or five strikingly realized scenes erupting out of long passages of wry, often brilliantly phrased summary. It is just the sort of novel one of Dillard's wondering, wide-eyed, word-obsessed narrators would write, once prompted to turn her attention from the world around her to those she loved and lived with.

Thomas Gardner. professor of English at Virginia Tech, is the author most recently of A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).

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