Axie Reed’s Suffering Star Shines a Bit Too Brightly

The Private Life of Axie Reed by John Knowles (Dutton: $15.95)

Alternating between the first person and the third, John Knowles has produced a hybrid elegy to a vibrant actress as written by her adoring male cousin, Nick. The novel starts slowly, with Axie Reed awakening to a glorious August morning in her beloved house on the Long Island seashore, chatting casually with the narrator about the history of the Hamptons and discussing which of the family jewels look best with the dress she’ll wear to the Art Museum ball.

Those first pages place Axie in her special context; fine old Eastern family, proper upbringing, first-rate education, competence at all the right sports, beauty intact well into middle age; her declining stage and film career only a slight source of unease; her reasonably happy marriage to a Greek shipping magnate long since amicably dissolved. Except for Nick, the devoted bachelor cousin, and Spyro, her ex-brother-in-law, Axie has no immediate family, though she has sycophants by the score and fans by the thousands.


Strong, self-sufficient, with all mundane chores efficiently performed by her ferociously loyal housekeeper, Edna, Axie seems the epitome of independence. Her life may not be too good to be true, but it seems too good to continue, the scribe tipping his hand on Page 1. “I never dreamed . . . of what would happen at the Parrish Art Museum Ball . . . in the summer of 1981.”

Despite her success, acting has never entirely dominated Axie Reed’s life, and she has begun to examine other possibilities open to a woman of her abilities; a biography, community service, perhaps a tranquil romance. Axie is even considering plummy character roles, an option she’s rejected until her 50th birthday.

Optimism Is Shattered

This sanguine mood is shattered in an instant when Axie collapses at the ball, falling so that the metal underpinnings of the bandstand cause critical internal injuries. Slipping in and out of consciousness for weeks, she sees her life played back to her scene by scene, forming the biography she is not quite ready to write. At first, when she is desperately ill, her story is told in disconnected bits and pieces; later, as she improves, in full scenarios.

The maudlin plot becomes an all-too-obvious literary device, as lifeless as a portrait painted from a photograph. By far the most dramatic scenes are those on the Greek island of Paxos, the holiday home of the Lambros family into which Axie married. Primitive, remote and starkly beautiful, Paxos is the perfect setting for the only real drama in the novel, though the emotional connections between the vital, liberated American actress and her Greek husband and his brother are developed so gradually that the reader’s intuitions constantly outrun the text.

While the accumulated events of Axie Reed’s personal and professional life seem meant to create not only the essential biography of this woman but of a human being forced by illness to confront mortality, the particular never becomes general. Even in her physically dependent condition, Axie is exactly the same person as the energetic actress we first encounter at her morning swim. Anguish only heightens her remarkable qualities, improving but not altering her character. The amazing resources are all in place from the beginning, clearly visible to her admirers, herself and the reader.

More limited in scope than Knowles’ memorable novel “A Separate Peace,” “The Private Life of Axie Reed” attempts to tackle another sort of accommodation to circumstance beyond individual control. But here, the central figure is so idealized there’s no room left for improvement or progress. The story is a star vehicle in which all the members of the cast are relegated to walk-on roles, gamely holding candles to illuminate their darling.