Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

OBIF2651[1]So far this year I’ve read an awful lot of books which are fairly newer releases in the grand scheme of things. Whilst this is great and I love keeping up with the newer reading trends, I’ve been finding myself craving one of my true loves; a good old fashioned classic piece of literature. I love reading the classics, and whilst I can freely admit that they might not be for everyone, I personally love them. There’s something about the words and the stories you can find within them that make me feel incredibly cosy and comforted. I read a lot of classic fiction when I was very young so I think a lot of this is mixed up with feelings of nostalgia. Either way, I knew it was time I gave in to the cravings.

I’ve previously read one other book by Edith Wharton, and that was arguably her most famous work The House of Mirth. As you can see from my review here and the fact that I gave it a 2*/5* rating, I wasn’t overly impressed with her work. Seeing that I had another of her books, Ethan Frome, sitting on my bookshelves in the gorgeous Penguin English Library Edition, I decided to give the author another go, with the story sounding more up my street. The novel follows the eponymous character Ethan Frome, and is described as a story of ‘ill-stared lovers and tragic destinies’. Ethan works the best that he can in a hostile farm, trying to appease his difficult and hypochondriac wife Zeena. When Zeena’s cousin, Mattie, comes to help around the house, Ethan begins to realise that there is more to life than the rut he has become stuck in. Time passes and his love deepens, but how could Ethan ever forsake the wife he is promised to?

What the novel does so well here compared to the likes of The House of Mirth is that it sets up the premise well very quickly. The novel is in the first person narrative of a newcomer to town who knows nothing of Ethan’s life, and we simultaneously begin to wonder about Ethan through this narrators eyes. Who is he? Why is he so injured? What has happened in his life to make him so? Whilst the novel is initially framed as narrated by this newcomer, the novel soon slips back into the past, and we find ourselves wholly invested in the lives of Ethan, Zeena and Mattie as they once were.

I actually really liked this technique of changing from the present to the past tense, as I think it heightened the overall suspense within the book which is actually a quiet and somewhat gentle read. We know from the initial chapter in the present that something has happened to Ethan to change his life.  We know this, but we still don’t know what it was, so our whole experience of living in the past is coloured by the fact that we know the novel is building towards something happening. Although the first section of the novel is technically in the future, it feels as though it is foreshadowing the main bulk of the novel set in the past, dictating that something bad or something shocking is going to happen.

Whilst the main bulk of the novel is set in the past, it actually then ends once more in the present tense, with our narrator who is the newcomer to town once more fully taking control. I really enjoyed how this was constructed in a bookend manner, as it seemed to confine the novel to within this isolated section of time and range of character, increasing the intensity of the overall story. By giving us this sense of the future at both the beginning and the end it makes the events of the middle section in the past seem all the more devastating, as we are openly seeing their effects.

Although this book is tiny in size, coming in at only 120 odd pages, I found the characterisation in this novel to be much more effective when compared with the more lengthier The House of Mirth. We might have less time with the characters, but their feelings and situations seem much more real and authentic. This could be because this novel follows a much more working class background, whereas Mirth deals with the higher society of New York, which is something I can’t really relate to and I don’t really find myself feeling emotive towards. Even so, there’s just something much more vulnerable and honest about the characters presented here, especially Ethan,that makes them seem all more real to the reader. I did wonder at times if we would have felt differently if this novel had been told from Zeena’s point of view, and we had seen her watching her husband fall in love with another woman. Would we have disliked Zeena then? Having said that, I do think on  the whole that her characterisation was done so well that we still probably wouldn’t have found Zeena to be a straightforward sympathetic character, even if we had read this in her first person narration.

It actually amazed me how much more I enjoyed this book when compared with the more prolific The House of Mirth. I honestly think she has managed to accomplish so much within this book, despite its tiny stature. She has managed to get such depth and feeling into the story, and in many ways the themes of hardship and heartbreak against the unyielding landscape reminded me very understandably of authors such as Thomas Hardy (high praise indeed!). If you’re a lover of that style of literature, I would definitely recommend that you give this a go!

Although a tiny book, Wharton has suffused it with both depth and feeling. You can see her come to life as she writes about the often depressing reality of working class life, with the emotion building steadily throughout.’

Publisher: Penguin English Library

Rating: 3.5*/5*

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