"Axis" by Alice Munro Originally published in the January 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
It’s always nice to see that the weekly story is by Alice Munro. “Axis,” a story that begins half a century ago, when two girls are attending college, and spans the many years to old age, does not disappoint.
When the story begins, Avie and Grace are two college girls, history majors, to be exact. They’re carrying books home for vacation, though they will never read them. Partly, they will never read them because that is the nature of a vacation; partly, though, because an education is not their primarily goal in college.
They understood — everybody understood — that having any sort of job after graduation would be a defeat. Like the sorority girls, they were enrolled here to find somebody to marry. First a boyfriend, then a husband. It wasn’t spoken of in those terms, but there you were. Girl students on scholarships were not usually thought to stand much of a chance, since brains and looks were not believed to go together. Fortunately, Grace and Avie were both attractive. Grace was fair and stately, Avie red-haired, less voluptuous, lively, and challenging. Male members of both their families had joked that they ought to be able to nab somebody.
Both girls have potential. Yes, they have potential in their education, but I mean here that they have solid marriage prospects. Avie is dating Hugo. Avie thought that having sex might make her love Hugo, but mostly it has just created the stress of a potential pregnancy. Avie has just finished telling Grace about a terrible dream in which she has two children with Hugo; one she has locked away in the basement, the other is lively and loved. So Avie has Hugo, but when she’s being honest with herself, she’d rather be with Grace’s boyfriend, Royce, a veteran of World War II. Grace is a virgin, something Royce is not used to but will patiently tolerate for a time.
As happens in an Alice Munro story, once the stage is set there is no more dilly-dallying. We quickly move in time to Royce getting on a bus to visit Grace at her home. At one of the stops, he looks out the window and sees Avie.
He remembered that she had quit college just before her exams. Hugo had graduated and got a job teaching high school in some northern town, where she was to join him and marry him.
Royce is tempted to get off the bus and ask Avie out, but he doesn’t. Instead, he goes to Grace’s home and, primarily interested in one thing (somehow claiming Grace’s “vaunted virginity), he suffers through the niceties of the family, including a provincial day of making strawberry jam.
The story slows down here to allow us to experience these few days before Royce looks back on them with the following sentiment:
He remembered whispering to Grace the day before they were doing the strawberries, kissing under the rush of cold water when her mother’s back was turned. Her fair hair turning dark in the stream of water. Acting as if he worshipped her. How at certain moments that had been true. The insanity of it, the insanity of letting himself be drawn. That family. That mad mother rolling her eyes to heaven.
It seems like the climax of the story has passed — certainly there has almost been a climax — but Munro is not through with these characters. She moves to Avie and Hugo, through their long years together, and finally to a time in old age when Avie and Royce again meet.
This is a powerful story, superbly crafted. I must say, January’s New Yorker fiction has been a great way to begin the year.