17 November 2010

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I've been diving into the classics lately, and I'm beginning to think I need to stay here for a little bit longer.  As I get older, it's much easier for me to read the classics now versus when I was in high school.  I remember reading Great Expectations then and struggling with it, ultimately not liking it.  I think it might be different twenty years later, you know?

Earlier this summer, I read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and absolutely fell in love with it.  It was my first Wharton read, and when I finished the book, I was curious as to which one of her stories I would next pick -- there are many to choose from, and even her life is fascinating, so I felt sure that even a biography of sorts would be a good way to go, too.  Over the weekend, the book I came across that jumped out at me was Ethan Frome.  It's a short book and only took a couple hours to read.

I'll say it right away -- I loved it.  Not quite as much as The House of Mirth, since there were a few things I wish were excluded in Ethan Frome which I'll get into later, but overall, Edith Wharton continues to rank right up there in my "favorites" category.

In a bleak town called Starkfield, Massachusetts, we meet Ethan Frome through an unnamed narrator, who has recently come to town.  The narrator provides the objective overview of Ethan, who becomes especially noticeable because of his disfigurement.  Feeling a bit more comfortable to share the gossip with an outsider, the local townspeople offer up the sordid details of Ethan's life, and thus our story begins.

Ethan's in his late twenties when the story starts.  Zeena initially came into the house to help tend to Ethan's mother while she was sick, and when his mother eventually passes on, Ethan can't stomach the idea of not having Zeena stay on.  So he marries her.  Not out of love, just purely out of fear of life without the routines and comforts that Zeena provided.  But, he sadly soon finds out that Zeena was only a good caregiver for one reason only. Zeena learned how to do everything because she herself is sick and weak all the time.  She stays in the room all day, and farm life in the bleak cold winters of Massachusetts isn't an easy life.  All hands need to be on deck to help, but Zeena isn't counted as one of them.  She's really more of an added burden to the hard life since she spends what little money Ethan makes on the farm on all of her doctor's visits, trips to see family, and newfangled medicinal concoctions that Zeena comes across.
Town of Thorndike, Maine
Since Zeena feels she needs help around the house because she can't do anything, they take in her younger cousin, Mattie, to help out -- Mattie's got nowhere to go after her parents have passed away, and at twenty-years-old, she feels closer in age to Ethan than Zeena.  Not to mention, she actually goes about and does stuff -- she's not the best help around the house, but she tries.  Mattie laughs, she's happy, she's interested in things.  And slowly Ethan realizes that he's finally feeling what true love is, and that he's falling smack dab into it.

Poor guy.  He's lived seven or so years with Zeena, who brings him down, sucks the very essence of life out of him, not to mention his pockets, too.  I found her to be a bit holier-than-thou and annoying.  And even though I'm not a fan of infidelity, I sort of got why Ethan strayed, even though it's really more of kissing and emotions than anything more.  Not that it makes his infidelity any better, but good gracious -- I'm surprised he didn't stray sooner!

But I had no idea for how the book would end. I didn't expect what these lovers would do to stay together, and how Ethan's life would end up.  I won't give one iota away because I know it's the kind of ending that you're all supposed to read and experience and turn the pages, gasping away at what happens.  Needless to say, that is how I experienced it, and I'm the better for it.  But I was so very, very sad for Ethan, and felt that if there's anyone who was the true epitome of bad luck, it would be Ethan.

My only difficulty with the story and which made me not love this book as much as The House of Mirth, was the unnamed narrator.  I couldn't stand the initial pages -- it felt a bit slow and boring to me, and it was only once Ethan's story started to truly take shape and the unnamed narrator wasn't in the forefront anymore that I found it was much more interesting and the book was a quick read.

I highly recommend -- you just have to get past the first few pages or so to get to the meat of it all.

Side Note
I couldn't help feeling the shared circumstances of the husband in Daphne du Maurier's short story, "The Apple Tree" that I just read, and Ethan Frome.  They certainly could have commiserated quite a bit on their miserable marriages and sad lives.  Has there been any characters from different stories that you felt would strike a good friendship?

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


  1. Kevin at Interpolations had a nice series of posts on this book, including this one that is specifically about that annoying narrator. You're not alone in your opinion!

    I don't trust my juvenile experience with books at all, at least not books of any difficulty. Readers change so much, we shed so many of our prejudices (perhaps we pick up new ones), we become more patient with some kinds of writing and so much less so with others.

  2. I've not read any Wharton yet but she's on my list. I agree with you that revisiting classics a bit later in life seems to be more enjoyable than the first time around when we were forced to read them in school. Thanks for your thoughts on the book.

  3. House of Mirth was also my first Wharton, and this was going to be my second one but i got sidetracked. My daughter also gave this one 5/5 on goodreads, so I better read this very soon. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I love Wharton! My favorite so far is The Custom of the Country, and I have Ethan Frome on my ipod right now for an audio reread. You might be interested in following up with Summer. Wharton referred to it as 'Hot Ethan' ... I read it over the summer and loved it! Have also had Hermione Lee's biography of Wharton on my tbr pile for far too long.

  5. I have a collection of Edith Wharton short stories that I tried to get into and just couldn't. But I think maybe it's the short story format I have a problem with as opposed to the author. I don't want to give up on her completely so I thought I would give House of Mirth a try next and go from there.

  6. Oh, you have to reread GREAT EXPECTATIONS. What a difference it was for me reading it as an adult versus school. It's become one of my favorite novels of all time.

  7. Well, I'm so glad you liked this. ETHAN FROME just happens to be one of my all time favorite books. (Have you seen the excellent film with Liam Neesom? It's a must-see.)
    I re-read this from time to time and it never, for whatever reason, loses its allure for me. I read this first in high school and was smitten then and never became un-smitten. I don't know why but there's something in this book that seems new to me every time I read it. And every damn time I read it, I hope and pray for a different ending. EVEN THOUGH I KNOW THE ENDING THAT'S COMING! I love this book.

  8. I read 'House of Mirth' years ago, and I liked it, but I haven't picked up anything by Wharton since. This sounds really really good.

  9. I've read both of these and enjoyed each in a different way. She's an excellent writer. I really enjoyed your post!

  10. I loved this novel. It is so sad and yet beautiful in its own way. I'm glad you liked it!

  11. I've been intimidated by this book because I remember when my sister read it in high school and moaned and groaned about it on a daily basis. I guess I need to consider her age at the time and bite the bullet and try it.

  12. great review. i have kind of been looking for a short classic to read in the next few days, and i'm glad you reminded me this one exists. (well, and also for telling me it's short.) i read "age of innocence" a few months ago and loved it - much more than i did when i had to read it for school - so i'm especially excited to read something by wharton again.

    this book is one i can only think of as "the one where they sled into a tree." it'll be nice to come up with a better picture of the story than that!

  13. I read this book a few years ago, and loved it! I was also really taken aback by the ending and thought that it was just such a great read. It was very bleak and sad, and when I first finished it, I wasn't sure what my feelings on it were, but after a little while of thinking about it, I grew to love it and marveled at what Wharton had done. Fabulous review! I am so glad that you liked it!

  14. I haven't read Edith Wharton in decades.(Yikes) I really do have to revisit them. Sometimes I wonder if it's a good idea to make kids read some of these books before they're ready to appreciate them. I looking forward to going back to Wharton.

  15. This is part of my 2011 goals to get back to some classics. This one is on the list. Glad u loved it!

  16. This sounds wonderful. Definitely will have to read this after I read House of Mirth.

  17. I hadn't read Edith Wharton until this year. I loved Age of Innocence and have since picked up a secondhand House of Mirth which I'm looking forward to.
    Definitely finding that rereading the classics I read many years ago I'm appreciating them more.

  18. I absolutely LOVE this book, and in fact liked it more than House of Mirth. What a tear-jerker, though. Definitely the saddest to make it onto my favorites list.

  19. I think I should read House of Mirth first and keep thinking I should read more classics, you make them sound so easy to read :)

    I smiled at the last note though :) Good thought.

  20. I got into Edith Wharton in college and count her among my favorite authors. I love The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. I remember having the same reaction as you, Natalie, when I turned the final pages in Ethan Fromme ***shudder***

  21. Amateur Reader - Thank you so much for sending the link! I'm so excited to know that I'm not alone -- the unnamed narrator drove me crazy!

    Kathleen -- Do read Wharton -- she will not disappoint!

    BookQuoter -- I think you will enjoy it -- not to mention there are some fabulous passages in it that are wonderfully quotable!

    JoAnn -- I haven’t read The Custom of the Country or Summer yet, but I also have it on my bookshelf, so it looks like I have some reading to do! “Hot Ethan!” :) I love it!

    Trish -- I’ve been meaning to pick up her short stories as well. I’ve found lately I’ve been getting into them much more than I thought I would -- currently I’m finishing up a collection of Daphne Du Maurier’s shorts, and it’s wonderful!

    Marie -- I absolutely will have to put that one on the list for 2011; I had a chance to flip through it recently, and it didn’t seem so daunting or boring!

    Rachel -- Yes, Ethan Frome is very good; let me know what you think if you get a chance to read it!

    Staci -- I feel I need one or two more of her works, and then I’ll be ready for a biography, perhaps the one that JoAnn mentioned!

    Michelle -- You are spot on, it is sad and beautiful! I didn’t realize how much I would like Wharton’s works, when they’re almost depressing!

    bermudaonion -- Yes, do try it! I promise it’s not that bad! :)

    Ellen -- :) Yes, it’s very quick and a good classic to pick up. I’d love to read The Age of Innocence, too!

    Zibilee at Raging Bibliomania -- So glad you loved it, too! The end -- oh my, wasn’t it terribly sad!

    marthalama -- I agree, sometimes we don’t have the ability to understand and appreciate what these classics truly offer, and how relevant they are even today!

    (Diane) Bibliophile by the Sea -- You will enjoy this one, you just have to get past the unnamed narrator! Yikes!

    Elizabeth Bauman -- Yes, do read this! Let me know your thoughts on The House of Mirth! I loved that one!

    Cat -- I find it so fun to read the classics now as an adult; definitely a different and better appreciation for it now!

    Emily Jane -- Yes, it is quite a tear-jerker! So far, I’m finding Wharton novels to be sooo sad!

    Veens -- Yes, The House of Mirth is my favorite between the two; let me know what you think! And yes, my last note -- :) they definitely would have made fabulous friends!

    Annie @ Buttery Books -- Oh, yes -- the last pages, I couldn’t believe it!! I felt sooo sad for them, and yet upset with them, too! Wharton does a fabulous job of really drawing you in. I’m looking forward to another one by her!

  22. Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. I think that Ethan Frome is very different from her other novels. I definitely enjoyed it though.

  23. Ooh, this is like going back in time for me! I read a lot of Wharton in my college (or was it high school?) days. And I remember it being more tedious than fun (which is also why i think i was probably in high school...) OK, my memory really is always this frightening.

    Anyway, it's great to read this review, revisiting the classics is almost always a great idea!

  24. I agree that classics seem so much easier to read with age- I've read more classics in the previous year than I have in all of high school...perhaps it's because we aren't forced to read them?

  25. Oh how I wish Ethan would just have put a pillow over Zeena's face! And can I just say that I was cold the entire time I was reading this one? Love Wharton!

  26. I read my first Whatdon a couple of months ago and I was surprised at how easy it was to read. I often think that classics are going to be torture to get though (as they sometimes are!)

    I have this on my American project list.

  27. Ethan Frome is one of the books I read in HS and loved! I keep meaning to read more Edith Wharton - I hope I enjoy it as much as I did in HS.

  28. I have recently read my first Wharton, also 'The House of Mirth' and can't imagine how I have managed to miss her up to this point. There was a serialisation in the UK of her final novel 'The Buccaneers' but as I now realise this was unfinished and so someone must have decided how it was going to end for television purposes. I feel rather cheated. "Ethan Frome' or 'The Age of Innocence is probably where I'm going next.

  29. I loved this too, and in the end I just felt SO bad for all the characters :\ Also, I'm so looking forward to House of Mirth.

  30. Stephanie -- I’ve only read two Wharton novels so far, but I’m definitely going to include her as one of my favorites. I’m excited to read some of the biographies that are out there as well!

    heather yalin -- I agree -- revisiting a classic is always the way to go. I wasn’t in the right place to read some of the books thrust upon me in high school, and couldn’t really appreciate it at the time. Or maybe I just needed a more enthusiastic teacher?

    samstillreading -- Yes, absolutely -- I think because I am reading them for fun now, it’s a more relaxed enjoyment. Plus, I am more comfortable with the language of it as well -- it now makes sense!

    Lisa -- Yes, I felt the cold, too! Wharton did such a fantastic job making you feel the environment as well! Oh, a pillow to Zeena’s face -- YES! She drove me crazy -- poor Ethan!

    Jessica -- Oh, this is going to be a good one to read for your American project list! Her work is startlingly easy to read and so relevant even today. I hope you enjoy Ethan Frome!

    Booksnyc -- If you enjoyed Ethan Frome in high school, you will definitely love it today! I urge you to also read The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton -- it was incredible!

    annieround -- Ethan Frome is a good one to try, particularly as it is such a short read. The initial part is a bit annoying because of this random unnamed narrator, but once that guy shuts up and it moves to Ethan’s perspective -- much better!! I’ve yet to read The Age of Innocence, so I’ll need to do that soon, along with “The Buccaneers!”

    Nymeth -- You will *love* The House of Mirth! I’m looking forward to your insightful review!

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