Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton wrenched my heart in a way that I had not seen coming! For a novel that has only a few austere characters, whose nearest town is called Starkfield and which takes place in a bleak, wintry and isolated countryside, it packed a surprising punch, more than the other novels I’ve read by Wharton, most of which take place in upper-class, dazzling New York, a setting which most people, me included, would find much more compelling.
In the beginning I practically swooned at Wharton’s exquisite prose – so languid, so dwelling on small things, and meanwhile the quiet drama gradually sneaked up on me and caught me unawares.
The frame story is provided by an unnamed narrator, a traveler of some kind, who sees Ethan Frome from afar when he arrives in town and is told just enough about him to feel intrigued by this quiet, broken man. During a sleigh ride with Ethan Frome, a winter storm suddenly means the narrator has to spend the night at Ethan’s house – the first stranger to enter it in decades. And here the real story begins, in the form of a flashback to Ethan’s life twenty-four years before.
We are told the story about Ethan’s anguish in his loveless marriage to Zeena and his infatuation with Zeena’s cousin Mattie, who lives with them. And we are shown how people, especially Ethan, can feel desperately trapped in their lives – by poverty, by snow, by marriage.
The desolation was palpable. I felt the harsh winters, the painful and almost total lack of choice, the misery and missed chances. Such descriptions might at other times make me give a novel a wide berth, but in Wharton’s hands the story vibrated in me hours afterward, and I knew I had just read something quite wonderful.