Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ethan Frome is a book I should have read years ago. Since I didn't, I had an opportunity to look at a classic with fresh eyes and I enjoyed it. The Age of Innocence is the only other Edith Wharton book I've read. Both are extremely well written. Ethan Frome was published in 1911.

Ethan Frome is structured as a tale told by a man who has been sent into Starkfield, Massachusetts to supervise work on a “power-house,” but he has been stuck in town longer than he expected due to a carpenters' strike. There's a powerful winter storm in the area and Ethan Frome is recommended as someone who has a horse drawn sleigh and can take the narrator to the home where he's been staying for a small price. When the storm becomes too much for travel, Ethan invites the man to stay overnight at his farm. This is where the narrator learns enough about him to tell his story.

Years earlier, Ethan lived with two women, his wife, Zeena and her younger cousin, Mattie. Mattie had fallen on hard times. Her father had died leaving almost no money for his family. Mattie's mother was not capable of supporting herself and her daughter. She died from the stress, leaving Mattie alone. Zeena took her cousin in because Mattie had nowhere else to go and because Mattie was cheap labor. She cooked and cleaned for room and board. She also took an interest in Ethan.

The novel concentrates on the relationship between Ethan and Mattie, but his relationship with his wife is more important. He's attracted to Mattie because she's young, pretty, and vivacious, but also because Zeena is the opposite. Zeena seems to feel she's been let down by her husband's inability to make more than a substance living and responds to her situation by constantly complaining about her health. While she seems to be reaching for attention from Ethan, her hypochondria and controlling personality push Ethan toward Mattie.

Good novels get into the heads of the characters. Edith Wharton is excellent at letting her readers feel by concentrating on the little things.

He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a creature to whom he could say: “That's Orion down yonder the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones – like bees swarming – they're the Pleiades...”

Anyone who hasn't read this novel, should give it a try. It's a beautifully written experience.

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