Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan FromeWhat a fantastic book. Ethan Frome is a beautifully told tale – a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Life had not been good to him:

Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with ever since the very first helping.

I was a bit wary as I began reading Ethan Frome because I’d not long finished reading Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and didn’t want to sink into another bleak and dismal book. I needn’t have worried, even though Ethan Frome is a tragedy there is light to contrast the darkness, and there is love and hope set against repression and misery. It’s another book (like The Grass is Singing) where I hoped the ending would be a happy one, although I knew it couldn’t be. 

It’s a short book (just over 120 pages) and deceptively simple to read, but there is so much packed into it. I enjoyed it very much.  As well as striking and memorable characters the setting is  beautifully described – a ‘mute and melancholy landscape, an incarceration of frozen woe‘, in the isolated village of Starkfield (a fictional New England village). Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Ethan’s life had changed when his father died and he had had to give up his studies to work on the farm. His wife Zeena had always been ill and needing help in the house, which was why her cousin Mattie came to live with them. At first it worked out quite well, but Ethan can’t shrug off a sense of dread, even though he could

… imagine that peace reigned in his house.

There was really even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary; but since the previous night a vague dread had hung on the sky-line. It was formed of Zeena’s obstinate silence, of Mattie’s sudden look of warning, of the memory of just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those which told him, on certain stainless mornings, that before night there would be rain.

His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone certainty.

Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937) was an American author. Ethan Frome was first published in 1911 and is in contrast to some of her other books about the New York society of the 1870s to 1920s. It’s a rural tragedy of inevitable suffering and sadness that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s books.

This book was the Classics Club Spin book for February/March and qualifies in the What’s in a Name 2014 in the Forename/Name category. It’s also a book I’ve owned before 1 January 2014 so is another book for the Mount TBR challenge.

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