Set against a bleak New England background, the novel tells of Frome, his ailing wife Zeena and her companion Mattie Silver, superbly delineating the characters of each as they are drawn relentlessly into a deep-rooted domestic struggle.
Burdened by poverty and spiritually dulled by a loveless marriage to an older woman. Frome is emotionally stirred by the arrival of a youthful cousin who is employed as household help. Mattie's presence not only brightens a gloomy house but stirs long-dormant feelings in Ethan. Their growing love for one another, discovered by an embittered wife, presages an ending to this grim tale that is both shocking and savagely ironic.
Originally published in 1911, this classic looks at the man Ethan Frome and the increasingly romantic feelings he develops for his wife's cousin, Mattie, one winter after the cousin comes to help take care of Frome's infirm wife. The way the prologue is laid out reminded me a bit of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, in that the opening scenes are told from the perspective of an outsider who comes to have a minor connection to the family through which to introduce the primary characters.
In the case of Ethan Frome, this introductory narrator is a man who comes to the town of Starkfield (where the Fromes live) via a job transfer, spots an elderly (or older version anyway) Ethan at the post office, is alarmed by Ethan's physical appearance, the way he walks sort of crumpled over and world weary. The narrator asks a local about Ethan and is given a few bits & pieces of the story. Our narrator then later comes to have an acquaintance with Ethan after Ethan offers to give him rides to his workplace. Getting caught in a snowstorm one night, Ethan offers to let the man stay at his house until the storm passes. It is there that our narrator is introduced to Mrs. Frome (Zeena) and Mattie.
The reader (in the opening pages of Chapter 1) is then transported some years back in the past when all the main characters were much younger and all the dramatic shenanigans first got started at that fateful church dance. It's made clear from the start that Ethan feels a bit trapped in his bland marriage to Zeena, but tries to do good by her. Still, he can't help but be increasingly taken with Mattie when his conversations with her reveal their shared interests. Mattie's interest in his thoughts & opinions, her lively way of conversing, her overall youthfulness and love for life gradually have Ethan's feelings for her turning from platonic / familial friendship to crush to all-out intense passion. A passion that will prove to have dangerous, joy-threatening consequences for them both.
This is a nice, quick classic to knock out on a snowy winter's day. With the whole story clocking in at less than 200 pages, it's a perfect length to curl up on a snowy afternoon and easily finish in one sitting. Plus the language is much more accessible than you might expect from a piece of classic lit.! The Signet Classics edition I read from has an interesting intro from author Anita Shreve in which she talks about how this one little book so greatly influenced her own writing career:
The effect Ethan Frome has had upon me has been profound: I have no doubt that it is because of this book that I am a writer, and that it is Wharton's novel I have been trying unconsciously or consciously to emulate my entire writing career (with little success, I might add; my last novel was 455 pages in contrast to Wharton's elegant 157 -- never mind, one must always have a goal).
I also found interesting Wharton's perhaps autobiographical vein in the novel Shreve points out:
Scholars have suggested that in fact Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical of all of Wharton's novels. Wharton was for years married to a sickly and mentally unbalanced Teddy Wharton, an older man whose sanity she often had reason to doubt. By all accounts it was an unhappy marriage, one from which Wharton saw no escape. In 1909, however, Wharton met Morton Fullerton, an attractive but unreliable cad who was to become her lover. Though the relationship was short and stormy and ended in 1910 (the same year Wharton wrote Ethan Frome), it opened Wharton's eyes to what life could be.
I didn't have anywhere near the emotional response Shreve seems to have had, but I definitely enjoyed the read. Zeena, though it was near impossible to like her, kept the pages moving for me with her subtle emotional manipulation of Ethan. I hated how she treated him but I couldn't help but be fascinated. Ethan I kept hoping would find his damn backbone! I liked watching the little stolen moments between him and Mattie intensify and found myself hoping they would have their day in the end. It's a fun read, alternately sweet and dark. My feels didn't burst through the ceiling or anything, but I'm all for picking up more of Wharton's works in the future because I did really love her sense of flow in the writing itself.