by Edith Wharton
Oh, illicit love — that big, tortured subject that makes up so much of the classic novel. Writers may take varying attitudes towards it, but Edith Wharton seems quite set on tragedy. A happy ending is never in the forecast, and even a neutral one seems optimistic. A man may love someone other than his wife, but Wharton guarantees that no character will feel good about it.
Ethan Frome lives in the appropriately named Starkfield, a snowy New England farming town where “most of the smart ones get away.” After years of caring for sick parents, he barely scrapes out a living from lumber and some livestock. His wife, Zeena, has several unspecified ailments which read something like rheumatoid arthritis with a splash of hypochondria. Because her ailments render her unable to perform basic household duties, she brings in a younger cousin, Mattie Silver, to live with them.
Living with this bright creature from elsewhere, Ethan finds himself in love with Mattie and relishes their time together, especially the walks they often take:
“He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness.”
Every once in awhile, he thinks that Mattie may have feelings towards him, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. If he’s wrong, he doesn’t want to ruin what they presently have, or worse, have her leave.
It’s easy to see why he’s so smitten with her when compared with his wife. Zeena spends most of her time complaining about her various ailments, running off to the next doctor with a new “special powder,” and judging everything Ethan and Mattie do.
“Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia’s way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences.”
I first read this book in my high school AP English class, sandwiched in somewhere between Frankenstein and the existentialism unit, which given the austere tone of the novel, makes sense. Despite my previously mentioned resistence to all things “classic,” I enjoyed reading it at seventeen years old. Perhaps because I’d spent time in love with people I would not ever be with, and was also in relationship that I knew deep down wasn’t going to work, I identified in a roundabout way.
Still, when it comes to illicit love, I tend to prefer the kind that does not stay illicit and resolves in some way. Given that, I wanted to reread this as an adult to see if I still enjoyed it without an undercurrent of teenage drama. And I did, to a degree. Perhaps I picked the wrong time to read it, should have waited until we were a little closer to warmer weather, but it took me a little while to get through what really is a short book. If it’s somewhat depressing to a person who’s just in a worn-out mood, then I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone feeling extremely dissatisfied with their life. That doesn’t make it a bad novel, just one for which to plan. Wharton’s writing perfectly captures the environment and characters, and in that way, perhaps some will find that it hits too close to home.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.