Ethan Frome. I’d heard the title and knew it was well-regarded, but beyond that I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any Edith Wharton before. She wasn’t one of those authors we were forced to read in high school (HELLOOO Dickens!) Despite being a voracious reader there are quite a few classic novels that I just never got around to.
What is it about? Simply put, it’s the story of a man with no luck. Seriously, this is one sad little book. It’s also beautifully, sparingly written. The story is set in the hamlet of Starkfield, Massachusetts, and a more apt description of the place couldn’t be found. The cold landscape sets the tone for a dark tale. The prologue is told from the point of view of an newcomer to the community. He arrives in town one day and is intrigued by Frome. Despite the fact that Frome is described as ”a ruin of a man”, he has something different about him, and the narrator begins asking around. We get a few tantalizing hints about a Frome’s life: his early promise, his parents’ deaths and the struggle to save the family farm, his sick wife, and the “smash-up” that left him crippled years before.
From there, the story shifts to Frome’s point of view, back many years before. He’s still a youngish man, but nevertheless, his best years are behind him. He lives in silent misery with his wife Zeena and her cousin Mattie Silver. Zeena is sickly and mostly bedridden. Mattie is a poor relation who has come to help around the house. Zeena is dried up and mean, and we get the impression that she’s also a hypochondriac. Did I mention she’s mean? Mattie is everything Zeena isn’t: sweet, vivacious, and beautiful. Mattie stirs something in Ethan. They grow close. When the end does come, it’s devastating.
Ethan Frome is not told on a grand scale. There are no big, important ideas at work here. It’s a small book about small people and their small lives. And it’s perfect.