Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
A Tragic Love Story
A masterwork From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Nineteenth-century New England villager Ethan Frome is tormented by his
love for his ailing wife-s cousin. Trapped, he may ultimately be destroyed
by that which offers his greatest chance at happiness...
Although I'd read the book for which author Edith W harton became the first
woman to win the Pulitzer prize (in 1920), I'd never even heard of this book
when a friend gave it to me recently. After reading it, my only regret is not
having happened upon it sooner.
This short novel (77 pages) would probably be classified as a novella and
is as brilliant as it is brief. The book is narrated by a man who spends "the
best part of the winter" in a small Massachusetts town, due to a work
assignment and becomes intrigued with the title character, who, he
describes as "the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the
ruin of a man" because of community members' comments about a
"smash-up." After enlisting the services of a reticent Ethan Frome for
transportation to and from the train station and spending (mostly wordless)
time with him, his intrigue only increases. But just when you think you are
to be let in on the secret, the author flashes back almost twenty -four years
prior to chronologically cover the events that ended up leading to the
incident (and taking up three-fourths of the book's pages). It's safe to say
(without providing spoilers) that the story is about the interrelationship
between a (then) twenty-eight year old man, his thirty-five year old
hypochondriac wife of seven years, and the woman 's approximately
twenty-one year old (first) cousin (once removed). Over the years' time that
the young woman lives with and works for the couple, Ethan Frome's
feelings for her change from mild resentment (being tasked with
chaperoning her to and from social engagements in town) to daydream-
inducing romanticism. Once again, the denouement seems imminent, but
instead the reader is brought back to the present to learn, along with the
narrator, the result of Mr. Frome's actions. The back cover calls the endin g,
"both shocking and savagely ironic." I agree.
Wharton's perfectly descriptive writing, character development and plotting
make this one of my favorite books of the year. Also good: The Age of
Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
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