Title: Ethan Frome
Author: Edith Wharton
Originally published: 1911
This is a top shelf book.
I love a good unhappy ending. It takes guts for someone to write a story that builds you up with all the hope in the world over one hundred pages then tear it away from you in only a few. An author who is conscious of the fact that she is going to make you believe in love, in destiny, in the power of attraction over reality and then slap you in the face with it anyways is impressive in her resolve. Edith Wharton did for me in Ethan Frome what she could not do in The House of Mirth which was make me feel deeply and somehow feel content with the horrible unhappiness of everything I just bore witness to.
A story of a fictional New England town called Starkfield where title character Ethan Frome calls home with his sickly wife, Zeena, it captures the struggle of small town life with little money to spare quite beautifully. She writes her characters so beautifully that you are aware of how old the Fromes appear due to the harshness of their cold life together, both due to the winters and a lack of love, despite the fact that they are actually quite young. When Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver comes to live at the home as a hired girl and changes Ethan completely when she is around, you feel as if you are reading about an entirely different man during those exchanges. It is this change Mattie creates in Ethan that is the catalyst for all subsequent events.
We have all read and seen the story of the ill-fated lovers. We have been depressed by them and haunted by them. There is something about two people in love who never quite get to be that can be aching. But what is special about Ethan Frome is that there is never a line crossed. All encounters and desire is transmitted through a slight blush, a batted eyelash, or a one-second-too-long touch. The beauty of this story lies in the fact that almost never are you led to actually believe anything good will come of it but somehow you think it anyway.
Wharton weaves a tale of suspicion, jealousy, lies, and betrayal that is not melodramatic or sickeningly sweet. It is surprising and heartbreaking, but simply so. The characters are true to themselves and each other, never faltering in their resolve and always understanding what must happen despite any desires they might have. There is something refreshing in reading a story that had the opportunity to spin out of control but the author chose not to. Instead, she decided to let the reader imagine what could have happened instead.
Do not delve into this one looking for happiness or excitement. Do not go looking for a love story or a sweet tale of people who wanted each other but were simply not destined to be. It is not happy and it does not leave you feeling uplifted but it is brilliant, well-written, and creative in the way the characters’ lives play out. The only criticism I have is the unnecessary device used by Wharton of the visitor to Starkfield being the narrator of the story of Ethan based on accounts he was given by other neighbours. The only reason this was needed was to give us an idea of what Ethan looks like now, years later than the rest of the novel, but still feels slightly contrived. The rest of the book, however, is so fantastic it is an easy thing to look over.