Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

A Chilling Winter Read: A Book Review of Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is set in Starkfield, Massachusettes, where everything is very stark indeed. Much of the story also takes place in the winter, when the New England town is covered in snow and bitter cold. At the heart of the story is, of course, Ethan Frome: a farmer living in the early 1900's who has been dealt a bad lot in life. He had been living away from Starkfield, at college, studying to become an engineer, when his father died and he had to return home to the family farm to care for his ailing mother, Zenobia. He ends up marrying Zeena, the nurse who took care of his mother, more out of duty and gratefulness than love or passion. Before long Zeena becomes a hypochondriac, inventing illnesses and perpetually seeking possible cures for them.

Into this depressing scene steps Mattie, who is quite the breath of fresh air for Ethan. A distant relative—-she was the daughter of Zenobia’s cousin-—Mattie's father had squandered all of the family’s money, a fact which was only revealed after his death. Mattie’s mother apparently dies of the shock and shame, leaving Mattie a penniless orphan. Zeena’s doctor suggests that Zeena find someone to help with the household chores, so Mattie comes to Starkfield to do just that, and also ends up winning Ethan’s heart.

The story is so depressingly tragic that at times I wanted to stop reading it. But it was like watching a scary movie or sitting down on a roller-coaster: you want to stop, kind of, but you also want to keep going. The story starts out by revealing that Ethan was in a freak accident, and then goes back in time, so you know things don’t end up well. The entire feel of the book is incredibly ominous and its pace marches you right on from the sweet tale of a simple and down-on-his-luck farmer who falls in love with a young, care-free girl, to the bad ending you know is coming. The language is simple and no-nonsense, yet it alternatively scares you like Stephen King and pulls on your heart strings like Jane Austen.

There’s a scene near the beginning in which Ethan has gone to pick Mattie up from a barn dance that puts you right there in the middle of their budding relationship, which is technically illicit and wrong, but feels so right that you find yourself rooting for them, even though you know it will end horribly. Ethan watches Mattie dancing, yearning for both Mattie herself and the simple innocence and hopefulness of youth, which is long-lost for him. When the dance ends, a young boy flirts with Mattie and offers her a ride home, and Ethan thinks that soon Mattie will get married and leave him. Yet, she is so surprised and happy that he is there to pick her up, and she reassures him that she’s not going anywhere. The tone of the relationship between Ethan and Mattie is light-hearted, casual and happy, in the middle of this otherwise entirely depressing book.

Despite its tragic subject matter, Ethan Frome is a gem of a book I plan to re-read again and again. I also want to read more of Wharton’s work. This is the first book I’ve read by her and I know that most of the rest of her works deal with the upper class New York society from which she came. I don’t know how she can write so well about a poor New England farmer, so I can only imagine what she writes about those characters that comprise her own element. I give Ethan Frome four and a half stars and highly recommend it to anyone.

1 comment:

  1. It makes me cold and sad just to think about this one. Wharton is one of my favorite authors; she has an uncanny ability to portray time and place.