Anyway, on to Ethan Frome, which I absolutely loved. As far as I know, this is the first of Edith Wharton I’ve read, English degree and all. And I’ve been missing out. It’s fantastic. This is the kind of book I’ve been needing to read – it’s like rehab for pop fiction.
Ethan Frome is about, well, Ethan Frome. He’s 28 and married to a horror of a woman named Zeena, who makes herself the center of attention by playing sick. For the past year, Zeena’s destitute cousin Mattie has been helping out around the house for room and board, though she’s not especially “handy.” Over the course of that year, she and Ethan have fallen in love, though they don’t act upon it until Zeena goes out of town for a day to see a new doctor. Ethan and Mattie spend the day together, and they kiss. Zeena doesn’t like Mattie, and she’s jealous of Mattie’s relationship with Ethan, so she devises a plan to get rid of her: she comes back from the doctor claiming that he said she must hire a maid and do absolutely no housework. She insists that Mattie leave the following day, and though Ethan tries to come up with something, he can’t really do anything about it. I guess I shouldn’t spoil the end of the novel, though I’ll give one clue: (again, spoiler! spoiler!) Rosebud. And I giggle.
It’s a depressing novel about forbidden love: Ethan is already in a miserable marriage, and, then, once he finds a wee spark of happiness, everything goes to hell in a hand-basket. Which really isn’t a spoiler because the very beginning of the novel explains how miserable Ethan is. Though it’s under 200 pages, Wharton thoroughly explores the characters and their motives, and that’s what makes it such a great read. It’s not an expansive world like those of most of my favorite novels, but a more personal and intimate one.
Wharton is on my shortlist. I’ll read another of her novels really soon because I enjoyed this one so much.
Bonus: If you like Ethan Frome and you’re a fan of 1950s pop fiction, find a copy of Mr. Whittle and the Morning Star. It’s a treat!