Review: Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome Book Cover

Ethan Frome
By Edith Wharton
Penguin
1911 (Original) 2009 (This version)
128pp

The Short of It:

Tragic, depressing and grim.

The Rest of It:

Oh my goodness! My book group chose this book for December, thinking that because it was short, it would be a good choice for a busy month. I agreed at the time. However, do not let its length deceive you. It’s certainly not a complex novel in that you need a lot of time to pick it apart, but it’s heavy and fraught with high drama as all of the main characters are miserable and there doesn’t seem to be any hope for happiness.

The story takes place in a nineteenth-century New England village. Ethan Frome is married to Zeena. Zeena has a great many problems. One of which is her ailing self. It’s not clear if she is truly ill, of if her meanness just makes her so, but she is bedridden to the point of needing a helping hand. Mattie, her cousin, comes to help them out.

As the three of them spend time together, it’s clear that Ethan has fallen hard for Mattie. He secretly catches glimpses of her at the supper table, and finds excuses to be alone with her. Although he hopes that she feels the same way, it’s hard to tell as first what Mattie is thinking. However, it’s not hard to tell what Zeena is thinking and it’s no surprise that she makes it difficult for them in the end.

My frustration with this book is that there is really no honor to be had when it comes to Ethan. He loves Mattie, but he doesn’t really act upon it in a realistic way. He sort of fumbles along and experiences moments of gushing that you’d expect from a young girl, not a grown man. I mentioned the honor part because it’s not really out of a sense of honor that he is with his wife. It’s as if he doesn’t have the energy to live any differently. He puts up with her but I’m not sure why. Certainly not for money, as they are poor farmers and with her medical costs, there is nothing extra to be had.

I wanted to feel something for Ethan, but I felt nothing. It was like downing a glass of wine and having it go right to your head. I was numb to his plight and I felt no pity for him. The end of the book, as seen through a third-party visitor to the house, has got to be one of the most depressing endings ever.

Although I didn’t love it, there is plenty to discuss.

On a funny note, when I saw the cover above, I was thinking torrid love affair, a “roll in the hay” so to speak, but when you read the book you realize the cover has nothing to do with what my dirty, smutty mind was thinking. Too bad.

Source: Purchased

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29 Responses

  1. From the original description, it sounds like Wuthering Heights! What a big crapper of a book for December! I have often gone for the short book and regretted it later. Well, I guess it is considered a classic (?) so at least you can say you’ve read it!

  2. My sister read this book ages ago and even gave me her copy but I still haven’t read it. I’ll have to dig it out. It does sound a bit depressing.

    • Wharton did an excellent job portraying Ethan’s angst, but the characters are all so frustrating. Ethan is too weak, Mattie is girlie to a fault and borders on ditzy and Zeena….vile in her own way, yet I could identify with her character the most. Scary!

  3. I must have the same dirty, smutty mind – I thought the same thing! (and was disappointed to hear it wasn’t that! ha ha)

    • Some steamy love scenes would have been good. I saw online that the movie starred Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson in a movie without a love scene is a total waste of hunkiness.

  4. [...] Rachel Shukert 52. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 53. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple 54. Ethan Frome by Edith [...]

  5. I am glad I read this book – most definitely one that offers a lot to talk about. I love some of the snarkier reviews I have found.
    I keep thinking I should watch the movie because I’m curious. You are right about a Neeson movie with no love scene – what a waste!

  6. Tragic yes, but I really liked this book. I do, however, hate that cover illustration. It appears inappropriately comical.

  7. My sister had to read this book in high school and moaned and groaned about it the whole time, so I’ve avoided it like the plague.

  8. That cover does look provocative! :) I haven’t ever read Ethan Frome, but it looks like my first impression of avoiding it was probably right.

    • I’m of the opinion that classics should be read. Even though this was not a love of mine, I am still glad I read it. There are very few books that I would write off the face of the earth.

  9. I read this book in HS and in college! And never again! I love Edith Wharton but not this book. I hoped Ethan would throw caution to the wind and have fun with Mattie esp. since Zeena’s ups her awfulness when she realizes what’s going on. Zeena’s a shrew. I don’t encourage people to be unfaithful to their spouses but I think Zeena was born to be miserable & will always be miserable. But they deserved each other.

    It’s quite a book and now you’ve read it so there’s that!
    Find something cheerful now!
    ~ Amy

  10. That’s weird, I just read this last week. And yes, it’s a total downer. And your mind really is in the gutter. Didn’t you notice the drops of blood in the snow? And the twisted legs?

    • I didn’t even think about blood. Like I said, my mind was in the gutter. But then if you really push the blood thing I could justify that as well. Eek!

  11. Funny – I’m rereading this now, but as an audio! Whaton also wrote a book, Summer, that she referred to as ‘Hot Ethan’. I read it over the summer and really liked it a lot.
    Unfortunate cover…

  12. For whatever reason, this has always been one of my all time favorite books. I read it first in highschool (we had a great English teacher and boy did we have a fabulous discussion about ETHAN FROME and all the symbolism) and just never got over it. I loved it then. I love it now. I reread it every few years and I always ALWAYS hope for a different ending. Each time it’s as if I’m reading it for the first time. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? I cannot be cured. I love this book.

  13. You are amazing to read this…I could never give up my angels demons weres, vamps and faes…hee hee hee…

  14. I think I had to read this in college. At least I know I had an English teacher who was obsessed with Wharton so we had to read a bunch. I don’t remember loving it like most people did. Ah well.

  15. Oh I have this one on my American TBR pile, some people really love it and others are more indifferent to it. I’m looking forward to reading it to see which side of the frence I’m on.

  16. I really enjoyed reading this one and think it would’ve been better as a group read!!

  17. I thought Ethan was a symbol of so many of us–he was in a place where he was terribly unhappy but he just could not break out of his inertia to do anything about it. I so wanted him just to put a pillow over Zeena’s face!

  18. [...] Rachel Shukert 52. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 53. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple 54. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton 55. Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth 56. Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch 57. Last [...]

  19. Ti,
    You read the best books. They are all things I’ve read or always thought about reading.
    My parents grew up in a small town like the one in Ethan Frome and this novel really affected me. My mother says it’s one of her favorites. The characters are frustrating and it’s depressing as a rainy Halloween but everything in it felt real when I was reading it. Edith Wharton’s characters always do things I don’t want them to do and act in ways I wouldn’t have predicted but in hindsight seem realistic and very human.

    • It did have a very real feel to it, for sure. I love to re-visit the classics every now and then. I haven’t read one in a while. Actually, there are so many I haven’t even read! I have not read an Austen book yet. I know. I am shaking my head too.

      • No Jane Austen! I am suitably stunned. Actually, I’ve only read Wuthering Heights and a few Jane Austen novels within the last two years. I was alive for all of the 80s so that’s probably behind the norm. Persuasion was my favorite Jane Austen novel but I find her work hard to read because I know the plots so well from the many films and her style can be somewhat slow.

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