An anthropologist’s eye and a poet’s precision distinguish this superbly written novel, exploring the ritual complexities of life, love and death.
In only her second novel (after The Living, 1992), the Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist/memoirist (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, etc.) provides a portrait of a relationship as it weathers the decades and endures twists and turns both unexpected and common. In almost fairy-tale fashion, Dillard details the romance in Cape Cod’s Provincetown between Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree, who seem fated to fall in love. She’s beautiful, though as Toby and the reader learn, she’s so much more. He’s a few years older, an aspiring poet, and initially tongue-tied and dumbstruck around Lou. They marry and have a son whom they both adore. Life is perfect—perhaps too perfect. Maybe people who idealize each other to such an extent can’t know each other too well. Not only do Toby and Lou surprise themselves, they surprise their tightly knit community, whose quirky characters are themselves full of surprises. Little goes as Toby and Lou had planned when they were younger and enraptured. Twenty years after one of them betrays the other and moves to Maine, they ultimately reunite, on an even deeper level than what they had earlier known. With a penchant for alliteration and a refusal to pass moral judgments, Dillard renders her characters as flawed humans trying to make sense of the lives they are living but cannot understand. In the process, she examines the essence of beauty and the nature of death, the fate that all her characters face and the common denominator that perhaps defines each of them.
The compact, elliptical narrative will continue to pervade the reader’s consciousness long after the novel ends.