The story begins with Grace, who is now in her 60s looking for the Traverses’ summerhouse in the Ottawa Valley. Why she is looking for it is not mentioned. She has not been here in many years, and there are changes; roads that used to go straight now have curves. There seem to be too many roads with names they did not have before. She looking for the past, but is lost in the new. There is a village now or a suburb with some vacation houses and some for year-round residents. She is about to turn back when she sees the octagonal house of the Woods, an old couple, old as “Grace is now,” and the house has a “mistaken look.” She finds the Travers house with its wraparound veranda, like houses she saw later in Australia.
“What was Grace really looking for when she had undertaken this expedition? Maybe the worst thing would have been to get just what she might have thought she was after. Sheltering roof, the screened windows, the lake in front, the stand of maple and cedar and balm-of-Gilead trees behind. Perfect preservation, the past intact, when nothing of the kind could be said of herself. To find something so diminished, still existing but made irrelevant—as the Travers house now seems to be, with its added dormer windows, its startling blue paint—might be less hurtful in the long run.
And what if you find it gone altogether? You make a fuss. If anybody had come along to listen to you, you bewail the loss. But mightn’t a feeling of relief pass over you, of old confusions or obligations wiped away?”
The Travers family: Gretchen—28; Neil—mid-30’s; Maury—21. Neil is not a Travers but a Barrow, for Mrs. Travers’ first husband is dead., but we do not know how at this point.
When Maury asks her out, she asks him if it is a dare, and he doesn’t know what she means. She wonders if it is a pickup to take it out to park, which is considered “rather shameful, rather had up, for a girl to agree.” When he asks “What?” painfully, she looks at him. “It seemed to her that she saw the whole of him in that moment, the true Maury. Scared, fierce, innocent, determined
They see the film Father of the Bride, and she hates spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked. Maury thinks that if she had that kind of wedding, she would have to spend years saving for it and he is “stricken with respect for her, almost with reverence.”
Because she wears a ballerina skirt and a blouse through which you can see the tops of her breasts, “There was a discrepancy, no doubt, between the way she presented herself and the way she wanted to be judged.” (How does she want to be judged? Not like the girl in the movie, but then she dresses to be seen a “bit ragged around the edges, in fact, giving herself gypsy airs.”
She falls in love with Mrs. Travers the way Maury had fallen in love with her.
Grace’s background: Mother died when she was three; father moved to Saskatchewan and had another family. She is raised by great aunt and great uncle; Great uncle canes chairs and teaches her how to do it. She has just finished high school, is twenty, has finished later than others because she takes extra classes, especially hard subjects for girls, like Geometry, Trigonometry, Physics. Does not plan to go to college, so principal asks her why she is doing this: She says she wants to learn everything she can learn for free before she starts a career of caning.
She gets the job at the Inn because both her aunt and uncle and the principle use the same language, believing she should get a “taste of life” before settling down.
Only Mrs. Travers seems to understand that learning has to do with life in some way other than earning a living. Mrs. Travers, who had been sent to business school was told she had to be useful, but wishes she had “crammed her mind instead, or first, with what was useless.”
Grace’s memories of parking sessions with Maury “proved to be much hazier than her memories of sitting at the Traverses’ round dinning table…”
The family plays a definitions game called Balderdash or Fictionary. Someone finds an obscure word that no one knows; each player writes a definition and gives it to the one who picked out the word. The picker writes down the correct definition. The definitions are shuffled and the picker reads them. Each player, except the picker, votes for what he or she think is the correct definition. A player gets a point if he or she guesses the correct definition and a point for each one who guesses his or her definition.
Mavis gets into an argument with Wat (Gretchen’s husband) over a definition, but when the dictionary proves it acceptable, she says, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I’m just outclassed by you people.” When she leaves, she says “I have to give you an Oxford dictionary next Christmas” with a “bitter tinkle of a laugh.” When Mrs. Travers asks Gretchen to make a pot of coffee, she goes in to the kitchen muttering, “What fun. Jesus wept.”
Mrs. Travers brings Grace to the house when she has a break of a few hours and often leaves her alone, during which time she reads. She sits in a leather chair in shorts and her legs become sweaty and stuck to the leather. “Perhaps it was because of the intense pleasure of reading.” (This line was not in the New Yorker version, but added by Munro for the book version.)
On the ride back to the hotel, Mrs. Travers waits until Grace’s thoughts get loose from whatever book she had been in and then might mention she has read it herself. The example given is Anna Karenina, which Mrs. Travers has read many times. First she sympathized with Kitty and then with Anna, and then with Dolly. She speaks of Dolly trying to figure out how to do the washing, and the problem about the washtubs. “I suppose that’s just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs.”
Maury starts talking about marriage, taking it for granted, but the only thing Grace is delighted with is the idea of traveling to Peru, Iraq, the Northwest Territories, etc. She is more delighted with this than with what he spoke of with pride as “our own home.” “None of this seemed at all real to her,” but the idea of being a chair caner in the house and town where she grew “had never seemed real either.”
She has had fantasies of getting married, “and in exactly in this way, with the man making up his mind immediately.” He would be handsome like Maury. Passionate like Maury. Pleasurable physical intimacies would follow.”
“This was the thing that had not happened. In Maury’s car, or out on the grass under the stars, she was willing. And Maury was ready, but not willing. He felt that it was his responsibility to protect her. And the ease with which she offered herself threw him off balance. He sensed, perhaps, that it was cold—a deliberate offering which he could not understand and which did not fit in at all with his notions of her. She herself did not realize how cold she was—she believed that her show of eagerness must be leading to the pleasures she knew about, in solitude and in her imagining, and she felt that it was up to Maury to take over. Which he would not do.”
“These sieges left them both disturbed and slightly angry or ashamed, so that they could not stop kissing, clinging, using fond words to make it up to each other as they said good night. It was a relief to Grace to be alone, to get into bed in the hotel dormitory and blot the last couple of hours out of her mind. And she thought it must be a relief to Maury, too, to be driving down the highway by himself, rearranging his impressions of his Grace so that he could stay wholeheartedly in love with her.”
Mrs. Travers says Maury is a “dear uncomplicated man, like his father. Not like his brother. …Neil is—he’s deep. “Deep unfathomable caves of ocean bear.” She says for a long time she and Neil only had each other. “so I think he is special.” She says she does not worry about Maury, she worries a bit about Neil. Gretchen she does not worry about at all. “Because women always have got something, haven’t they, to keep them going? That men haven’t got.”
Now we find out two things: That Neil’s father had killed himself and that Mrs. Travers gets into trouble now and then with her nerves and has to go in hospital for a couple of weeks until they get her “stabilized.” Neil’s father killed himself because he was “unstable.”
Now we have the bit at Thanksgiving about no cranberry sauce, and Maury wants Grace to go with him, but the two little girls want her to swing with them. She breaks her sandal strap and takes her shows off and when she gets in the swing, she cuts her foot on a clamshell that Dana was going to use to make a house for her snail, Ivan.
When Neil arrives, Mrs. Travers says, “Now, that is what I call opportune.” Grace recognizes smell of liquor edged with mint on his breath. His hands do not feel drunk.
He suggests going to hospital for an anti-tetanus shot, which is for him a good excuse to leave. As they leave, Mrs. Travers, with that “look of hazy enthusiasm that seemed natural to her” says “This is good…This is very good, Grace, you are a godsend. You’ll try to keep him away from drinking today, won’t you? You’ll know how to do it.”
Grace heard these words, but gave them hardly any thought. She was too dismayed by the change in Mrs. Travers, by what looked like an increase in bulk, a stiffness in all her movements, a random and rather frantic air of benevolence. A weepy gladness leaking out of her eyes. (This sentence added in the New Yorker version) And a faint crust showing at the corners of her mouth, like sugar.
Now begins the final section of the wild ride.
“There was a highway overpass above the railway tracks, and they took this at such speed that Grace had the impression, at its crest, that the car had lifted off the pavement and they were flying. There was hardly any traffic, so she wasn’t frightened, and anyway there was nothing she could do.”
And Neil said to Grace, “You didn’t want to go home yet, did you?”
“No,” Grace said, as if she’d seen the word written in front of her, on the wall. As if she were having her eyes tested.
“Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say—she did say—that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang—acquiescence simply rippled through her, and the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled.”
“Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed for a long time, though there was a variation in the parts of it she dwelled on. And even in some of those details she must have been wrong.”
“In Grace’s recollection, there was not another car on the highway, and their speed approached the flight on the highway overpass. This cannot have been true—there must have been people on the road, people on their way home from church that Sunday morning, or on their way to spend Thanksgiving with their families. Neil must have slowed down when driving through villages, and around the many curves on the old highway. She was not used to driving in a convertible with the top down, wind in her eyes, taking charge of her hair. It gave her the illusion of constant perfect speed—not frantic but miraculous, serene”.
And though Maury and Mavis and the rest of the family had been wiped from her mind, some scrap of Mrs. Travers did remain, hovering, delivering in a whisper and with a strange, shamed giggle, her last message. You’ll know how to do it.
“Grace and Neil did not talk, of course. As she remembers it, you would have had to scream to be heard. And what she remembers is, to tell the truth, hardly distinguishable from her idea, her fantasies at that time, of what sex should be like. The fortuitous meeting, the muted but powerful signals, the nearly silent flight in which she herself figured more or less as a captive. An airy surrender, her flesh nothing now but a stream of desire.”
When they stop at a hotel, it is not for the bed, but for the bar. Everyone fulfills her fantasies. The bar is as she would have expected. When Neil is recognized by the barman, “Grace believed it would be like this—everywhere they went, there would be somebody Neil knew already.”
Neil asks her if she minds being dragged into any old place, and she says no. He says, “I need your company.” But why does he need her company? When licks her palm, he asks, “Did you think I was adducting you for fell purposes,” she says “No,” but she says she is lying. He says there was a time when you would have been right, as if she had said “yes,” but, he says, not today. “You’re safe as a church today.” Grace thinks the word “fell” is so like his mother.”
“The changed tone of his voice, which had become intimate, frank, and quiet, and the memory of his lips pressed to, then his tongue flicked across, her skin, affected Grace to such an extent that she was hearing the words but not the sense of what he was telling her. She could feel a hundred, hundreds of flicks of his tongue, a dance of supplication, all over her skin. But she thought to say, “Churches aren’t always safe.”
“It seemed that they were up on top of the world here or on one of the tops. The field fell away on all sides; the trees around being only partly visible, because they grew on lower ground.”
“Who did he know here, who lived in this house? A woman? It didn’t seem possible that the sort of woman he would want could live in a place like this, but then there was no end to the strangeness that Grace could encounter today. No end to it.”
All this strangeness is part of the fictional world she has entered.
She thinks it is a bootlegger and thinks of the bootlegger as a raddled, skinny old man, morose and suspicious, sitting on the porch with a shotgun on Halloween.
Not that she had ever been inside a bootlegger’s house, but the partitions were thin, at home, between some threadbare ways of living that were respectable and some that were not.
Neil asks, “Tell me about what interests you, then. What interests you?”
She said, “You do.”
“Oh. What about me interest you?” His hand slid away.
“What you’re doing now,” Grace said determinedly. “Why.”
“You mean drinking? Why I’m drinking?” The cap came off the flask again. “Why don’t you ask me?”
“Because I know what you’d say.”
“What’s that? What would I say?”
“You’d say, ‘What else is there to do?’ Or something like that.”
“That’s true,” he said. “That’s about what I’d say. Well, then you’d try to tell me why I was wrong.”
“No,” Grace said. “No. I wouldn’t.”
When she’d said that, she felt cold. She had thought that she was serious, but now she saw that she’d been trying to impress him, to show herself as worldly as he was, and in the middle of that she had come on this rock-bottom truth. This lack of hope--genuine, reasonable, and everlasting. There was no comfort in what she saw, now that she could see it.
Neil said, “You wouldn’t? No. You wouldn’t. That’s a relief. You are a relief, Grace.”
“She had thought it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what she’d been working toward at all. She had seen deeper, deeper into him than she could ever have managed if they’d gone that way. . [Change to book version: “But that wasn’t what had been meant for them at all. That was child’s play, compared to how she knew him, how far she’d seen into him, now. ]
What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and it was all there was.”
“It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else, from the thing that was waiting, no matter what, all the time.”
[Change to book version: “It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. The same thing was waiting, no matter what, and all the time. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction.”]
When night comes, it becomes clear to her that “they were still in the world after all. That she had to get back to Bailey’s Falls.”
She drives back, lost, and disoriented, not having come into Bailey’s Falls in this unfamiliar way. She becomes more frightened. “ It was one thing to drink in unknown territory, another to turn in at the inn gates.”
He told her to slip her foot out of its sandal, and he pressed it here and there, before saying, “Nice. No heat. No swelling. Your arm hurt from the shot? Maybe it won’t.” He walked her to the door, and thanked her for her company. She was still amazed to be safely back. She hardly realized that it was time to say goodbye.
As a matter of fact, she does not know, to this day, if those words were spoken or if he only caught her, wound his arms around her, held her so tightly, with such continuous, changing pressure that it seemed as if more than two arms were needed, as if she were surrounded by him, his body strong and light, demanding and renouncing all at once, as if he were telling her that she was wrong to give up on him, everything was possible, but then again that she was not wrong, he meant to stamp himself on her and go.
She hears of the car crash. It has gone directly into the bridge abutment, rammed right in, totally smashed. It is obviously not an accident.
She did not have to deal with Maury face to face. He wrote her a letter.
Just say he made you do it. Just say you didn’t want to go.
She wrote back five words. I did want to go.
She was going to add, I’m sorry, but stopped herself.
The last paragraph. after Mr. Travers gives her a check for a thousand dollars, recalls the phrase earlier about her getting a taste of life.
"The check was for a thousand dollars. Immediately she thought of sending it back or tearing it up, and sometimes even now she thinks that that would have been a grand thing to do. But in the end, of course, she was not able to do it. In those days, it was enough money to insure her a start in life."