Set in the early twentieth century in a remote and wintry part of Massachusetts, Ethan Frome is a tragic and heartbreaking story of love and betrayal. At the beginning of Ethan Frome, the unnamed narrator encounters Frome and other townspeople who know Frome and the narrator pieces together the events described in the book. Frome, a quiet man, lives with his sickly wife, Zeena, who is several years his senior. Zeena’s cousin, Mattie, also lives with them and she is young and beautiful. Ethan takes quite a liking to Mattie and while Zeena leaves town to seek treatment for her ailment a quiet affair between Ethan and Mattie ensues.
Even though I hosted the Classics Challenge, I have been terrible at reading classics lately. This is the first I’ve read in months and reading it made me want to toss everything else aside and seek refuge in classics for the rest of the year. Wharton’s writing is spellbinding. The story is a simple one and even the writing is fairly simple, but the heartache is palatable in the book. Ethan is such a complicated character torn by his emotions for Mattie and his duty to Zeena. Even though this is such a short book, Wharton’s descriptions are so impactful. The sexual tension between Mattie and Ethan is on the one hand subtle and hardly existent, but the richness with which Wharton describes Ethan and Mattie’s encounters tore at my heart:
“The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart. She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger-times touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture; and that it had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless on the other end of the strip” (95).
The above comes from a fairly long passage and I wish I could include it all, but I don’t want to give too much of the event away. But even as almost nothing happens in this passage there is still an electricity that can be felt through Wharton’s description. Love it. The only other book I’ve read by Wharton is The Age of Innocence and I don’t remember it having quite the same passion (all I remember really is that the ending ticked me off).
If you’re looking for a short and engaging classic, I would recommend Ethan Frome. I read this within a few hours, and because I read it for the readathon I’m sure I missed much of the depth, but it is one that I would love to go back to one day. And it certainly makes me eager to read more of Ms. Wharton’s works. Any classic that has me wanting more is definitely a good one in my book!
One more thing but since this contains spoilers, don’t read on if you haven’t read the book. When I closed the covers for Ethan Frome I was struck by how messy the book ended. It seems nowadays that everything needs to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, but I loved how tragically unhappy this book is. Doesn’t that sound strange! It almost killed me when Ethan and Mattie drove for that tree in order to be together, but for all three of them to end up in the same household together is almost unbearable. I’m not really sure what to make of any of this–I guess just an observation–but it isn’t often that such powerful endings are found in modern literature? Of course they’re there, but maybe just not as often? Ramble over.
What was a classic you’ve read that had you reaching for more?
Hope everyone’s having a good week so far!
**Edith Wharton is actually going to be on tour in January via the Classics Circuit! Be sure to check out the fun!