By Annie Dillard
HarperCollins / 224 pages / $24.95
Early on, Toby, one of the major characters in The Maytrees, wonders a tad longwindedly about the nature of love and sets the theme, story line and style of Annie Dillard's second novel:
Was romantic love a modern invention? How long could it last as requited or unrequited? Does familiarity blur lovers' clear sight of essences and make surfaces look sharp and significant? Since love intensifies in parted lovers, presumably because the lovers forget and re- imagine each other, is love then wholly false? How false? Thirty percent false? Sixty percent false?"
A poet and nature writer, Dillard has written 10 well-received books of nonfiction and poetry. She's best known for her book of literary nonfiction, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Chronicling the four seasons that Dillard spent at Tinker Creek outside Roanoke, Va., the account showcased Dillard's intense power of observation and her astute scholarship.
Dillard has said that she wrote Pilgrim from more than a thousand note cards, spending eight months, seven days a week, 15 and 16 hours a day writing in a library carrel. It's easy to imagine Dillard employing a similar writing method for The Maytrees, with its plethora of facts regarding nature, history and science. Add to this many references to works by authors including Marcus Aurelius, Aristotle, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The story itself looks at love through the eyes of man, woman, parent, and child. Spanning three generations, the narrative focuses on Toby Maytree; his wife, Lou; their son, Pete; and Toby's paramour, Deary. The tale's actual setting is Cape Cod, Mass., but Dillard's 59-page prologue occurring in a distant future suggests that her characters' experiences are universal.
The plot, which Dillard gives away about halfway through the story, is a variation of "he loves me; he loves me not." It plays out against the 14-year marriage of Toby and Lou, which ends when Toby, a poet, and Deary, the neighborhood free spirit, run away to Maine, leaving behind Lou and Pete.
As 44-year-old Toby prepares for the getaway, he wonders if he ever loved Lou, thinks he probably didn't, and decides that love is greater than willpower. "Let's see her [Lou] forgive this one." Will Lou forgive him? The question takes on urgency 20 years later when Deary, who is several years older than Toby, develops congestive heart failure and is tied to an oxygen tank and confined to bed. Toby tries to care for her out of a sense of duty - even though he realizes that he has always loved Lou.
But after he falls on the ice, breaking several bones, he needs help. Since they live in an out-of-the-way town and cannot hire anyone, Toby and Deary decide to throw themselves on Lou's mercy, an action which tilts the story's theme toward the durability of a woman's love, having in essence proved that man's love is fleeting at best.
Lou, meanwhile, has become wrapped up in her watercolor paintings and her women friends. She is especially close to her son. "Often she missed infant Petie," Dillard writes, "his random gapes, his bizarre buttocks. How besotted they gazed at each other nose-on-nose. He fit her arms as if they two had invented how to carry a baby. While she walked, he patted her shoulder."
The relationship between mother and son helps Pete cope with the loss of his father. A more believable character than either Toby or Lou, Pete rejects at least temporarily his father and Deary, despite their efforts to reconcile with him. But after Pete marries and has a son, he's able to understand that his father could still love him even though he abandoned him. "When had scruples not hobbled or wrecked love or affection?" Pete wonders as he realizes that his father has been waiting for him to make the first move.
With love as its subject, the novel could have been enthralling. Everybody loves a love story, but this narrative, like Dillard's first novel, The Living (1992), is a disappointment. Dillard's inclusion of numerous facts, quotes and literary allusions, as well as her tendency to philosophize, weigh down the story's already thin plot line. Dillard's use of purple prose and stilted language doesn't help.
There are numerous classics whose style seems overblown by contemporary standards. Yet these works endure because the authors - like some of those Dillard refers to - created memorable characters.
Dillard's characters, however, feel like mouthpieces for metaphysical speculations concerning love, instead of real people. That's not to say that Dillard's thoughts aren't worthwhile. They are, but they would be better served if they were expressed as poetry or as literary nonfiction, genres in which Dillard has proven her ability to excel.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.