Ethan Frome is married to Zeena, a woman he doesn’t love. Trapped in his unhappy marriage, Ethan has no joy in his life and no hope for the future. One day Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to stay with the Fromes. Mattie is everything Zeena isn’t – warm and loving and pretty – and soon she and Ethan begin to fall in love.
Ethan Frome is a short book with a simple but very effective plot, so for those of you who haven’t read it yet, I don’t want to go into any more detail about it and risk spoiling the story for you. But although this is not a particularly complex story, it is a powerful and memorable one.
The tone of the book is very bleak, filled with foreboding and a hint of tragedy to come. The only characters explored in any depth are the three main ones (Ethan, Zeena and Mattie) but all three are realistic, believable people. Ethan and Mattie’s relationship felt real and natural, and I wanted them to find happiness together. Zeena, as seen through Ethan’s eyes, was portrayed as such an unpleasant person I found it difficult to have much sympathy for her, but it was clear that she was also stuck in a desperately sad situation.
The most striking thing about this book, for me, was the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere Wharton created, making the reader feel locked within Ethan’s miserable world. The town of Starkfield, Massachusetts is as stark as its name suggests; the descriptions of the snow, the ice and the cold all contribute to the heavy feeling of oppression which hangs over the entire book. The wintry landscapes are so vivid I wished I’d saved this book to read on a snowy day, as I think it would have made a perfect seasonal read! As well as the winter imagery, I also loved the way the book ended. I thought it was obvious what was going to happen but I was wrong; there was a twist at the end that gave the story an unexpected conclusion.
This is the first book I’ve read by Edith Wharton and although I did like it, it hasn’t become an instant favourite. I can definitely understand why people love it, but it didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I had expected it to. I don’t know why not because it was certainly a tragic story, so maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it. Overall, my first experience of Wharton’s work was a good one, but I think I’ll have to try another of her books before I can decide if she’s my type of author or not – any suggestions as to which one I should read next?