Review Of The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
© by Jessica Schneider, 6/18/09
When I first heard about Annie Dillard’s latest novel The Maytrees,
I was inclined to read it because the reviews had spoken of Dillard’s nature
bent in her work, as well as leaning to the likes of Thoreau and Emerson. Being
that I have been a long time devoted reader of nature writing and nature
literature, from Thoreau and Emerson to Loren Eiseley to Barry Lopez to Jack
London to even some of the mountaineering adventure writers like Jon Krakauer
and Joe Simpson, I was eager to hear what all the praise had been about.
Critics have been calling Dillard’s book ‘fiercely poetic’ and a
‘work of genius’ and so finally I just asked if I could review it for
myself. After reading it, however, I have come to see that the work is actually
none of the above and just falls flat and is the story of nothing more than you
guessed it: a dull marriage. The prose, however spare, never works to develop
the characters, and the dialogue is mediocre. Although this is the first work of
Dillard’s I’ve read, now after reading her fiction it would be my guess that
she would make a better essayist than fiction writer for the above reasons I
The Maytrees is in no way a bad book, it’s merely passable, at best.
She gives us lots of nature description, but her work never reaches the highs
that Loren Eiseley or Barry Lopez do a their best, and nor does she even have
the humor of Edward Abbey. While her prose does have a nice music to it in parts
(my ear is sensitive and in tune to such) the language never rises above merely
pleasant, and as for the characters, well, they’re not particularly memorable.
Set at a distance, I felt like I was watching their lives behind a sheet of
glass, never caring enough to move in.
The husband is a poet, and there are many instances of literary
name-dropping and literary inside jokes that the average reader won’t get. Not
that that’s necessarily bad, but the ones who do get it (like the legend of
Kaspar Hauser) already know it and so you’re just left with ‘so what?’
One of the merits of the book is its brevity, for the work is very, very
short and has a lot of white space and page padding to separate each chapter.
The book, while marketed as a novel, is really just a novella, and the fact that
Dillard keeps the writing spare is a good thing since she does not bog the
readers down with pages and pages of dull description that leads nowhere. Many
writers today would have probably bloated this work to more than twice its
length, for example. But her lack of character depth is a bad thing, because
again, the characters are very ordinary, and left as such. The fact that the
husband is a poet comes across as a gimmick just to be pretentious and name drop
all the time. There is nothing wrong with writing about ‘ordinary’
characters, but when a good writer does this, he or she can take an
‘ordinary’ character and give an extraordinary element to the person, such
as having that character unknowingly delve into bits of insight. Even the most
dull and average drone, if one were to follow that person around with a tape
recorder and tape record everything that person ever said throughout that
person’s life, there would be at least a few instances when that person might
have said something intelligent or made some keen observation, albeit without
realizing. It is up to the writer to then find those extraordinary moments in an
‘ordinary’ character to make this a person worth reading about. We don’t
have enough of that in this tale.
One of the errors critics make is when they quote writers, and
specifically in this case with Dillard, they only quote her description of
something. And while description is fine when done well, they seem to miss the
observations and exchanges between characters and things as being the parts that
pull the narrative, making it essentially the real juice of the tale. Here is
The winter before Maytree came with Deary, Lou had been orbiting one
galaxy of ideas as close as she dared. Could a person hold all people past and
present in awareness? She further wondered if doing so was, by some errant
chance, the point- toward what end she had no clue. Not that life required a
point. But she found herself starting to sway toward eventually considering that
there might be one. A point. Any point.
Here is an example of a nice philosophical moment made by a character.
But other times the writing just turns pretentious, cliché filled and the
He shook through the atmospheres of blackness and blank.
Actually, he would rather turn back and find the lee of a beach plum in
the swale, discover some brandy, and sleep abutting some strange dog… From
pre-eternity the ocean ahead lashed and threw salts. There far on the right was
This is where one of the chapters ends. While reading passages as these,
I have to question what people are seeing when they read. While ‘lashed and
threw salts’ is a nice way to describe the ocean, the rest is too pretentious,
precious, or just clichéd.
Lets just compare this to the end of a passage from one of Loren
Eiseley’s essays culled from his book The Unexpected Universe:
I have listened belatedly to the warning of the great enchantress. I have
cast, while there was yet time, my own oracles on the sun-washed deck. My
attempt to read the results contains elements of autobiography. I set it down
just as the surge begins to lift, towering and relentless, against the reefs of
Both passages involve images of the sea and the continuation of time but
Eiseley’s writing is more active and does not dip into cliché the way
Dillard’s does. He is then, by this fact, more timeless and alive.
There are far worse books out there than The Maytrees, and even though this book did not deliver the level I had hoped, at least Dillard tries. Most writers nowadays don’t even do that. I only wish the characters could have been more developed and less pretentious, and the language consistent throughout the work for me to then be able to claim this book a great success because as it stands it is only a marginal one, at best.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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