When she was 12, Lou’s father left her mother to live with her mother’s sister and never returned. Her mother moves first to Provincetown, and then away, leaving Lou the house. Her mother “polishes her grudges for the rest of her life.” But Lou is not like her mother.
Maytree loves making Lou laugh. She paints and he does carpentry. Lou wants more to love than to be loved. To Keats’ question, who enjoyed lovemaking more, she replies, “the woman.” They see their marriage as unique. They have a baby whom they name Peter. As a child they teach him to know the constellations which they watch from the dunes. Maytree enlarges the crawl space under the house, putting in furniture and finishing it off by installing many-paned French doors which open onto the beach.
When Peter is 12 and riding his bicycle, a motorist runs into him breaking his leg. Maytree carries Peter home, but then when Peter is settled and asleep, tells Lou that he is moving to Maine. With Deary, one of Lou’s friends. For the next 20 years, he lives on an island, and then in Camden, never seeing Lou, but becoming progressively richer as he works on Deary’s many real estate schemes.
Lou, deeply surprised, is at first calm. Her friends blame Deary. Lou “could persuade no one she was not heartbroken. She had seen her own mother heartbroken, and knew she could do better.” But when Peter goes back to school, Lou has time to think. She “found herself holding one end of a love. She reeled out love’s long line alone; it did not catch. She fell apart.”
She doesn’t speak, but friends begin to notice. Her son gives her a wide berth. Finally she climbs the steep streets of town, trying to work on herself. She understands that “if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal.” Why are we born into this selfish stew, she wonders. She begins painting again, finding a scheme that she sticks with: “foreground of disturbing beach, middle distance disturbing sea and sky above, disturbing.”
Meanwhile, Maytree realizes he hasn’t stopped loving Lou. “His abiding heart-to-heart with her merely got outshouted.” Peter becomes a fisherman, thinking often about his father and vowing to become a perfected human. At last Peter fetches up in Camden while his boat is being repaired, and visits his father who greets him with tears. Why had they waited so long, they each wonder.
Lou lives mostly out at the beach shack. She wants to hear herself think. “How else might she hear any original note, any stray subject-and-verb in the head, however faint, should one come?” When she works at a nursing home she found people recited received analyses of current events! The patients watched television, “informed to the eyeballs like everyone else and rushed for time, toward what end no one asked.”
Deary has congestive heart failure. She refuses treatment, though she uses an oxygen pump. She wants badly to go back to Provincetown before she dies. Maytree falls, carrying her from the doctor’s office, and breaks many bones in his hands and arms. Unable to find anyone to help him, he takes Deary to Provincetown, goes out to the beach shack and asks Lou if she will help.
Lou immediately makes plans to accommodate them. “Not going to slug me?” asks Maytree? Lou wonders, “Did he think so poorly of her that he fancied his chucking her and Pete for Deary had left her ruined and angry for twenty years? Surely he knew her better than that.” They set up a bed for Deary by the French doors so she can see the sea, the sky and people on the beach. When Deary dies, Maytree plans to go back to Camden, but Lou catches him around the waist one night as he is on the beach looking at the sea. Shame had kept them apart twenty years.
“As they aged, they grew avid of beauty.” Lou holds nothing back, but Maytree knew he never reached it all. He says, “only now did he reckon beauty itself was the great thing. As a deathbed revelation this required – like most, he suspected – more thought.” Lou lives until 80, spending most of her time out at the dune shack. One day her friend comes and finds she has laid herself out on the bed, no longer alive.
The Maytrees follows the inner lives and development of Lou, Maytree and their son Peter as they are reflected in the actual facts of their lives. Lou’s story is that of the difficult path to becoming a grownup. Dillard shows us exactly how Lou manages to get past her pain. It is not through religion or looking within. Lou had tried that. “It was fearsome down there, a crusty cast-iron pot. Within she was empty.” Instead she uses the earth, the world, living in astronomical, geological time. “She could guy out Orion and spread him like a spinnaker, a chute to fly beyond her own self-love.”
We have surprisingly few stories of people who manage to deflect tragedy and turn it to warmth and love. Lou’s story hovers in a poetic, beautiful language as well. Annie Dillard has said that she wrote more than a thousand pages before condensing the book down to two hundred. For my part, left with the cream of the story, I wouldn’t mind having the many pages it was culled from!