Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
I finally got around to reading this, only my second Edith Wharton, and I feel much like I did after reading "House of Mirth". I closed the book kicking and screaming "Noooooooo! Don't end it like that!" I loved the story and the writing is sublime, but oh my goodness does everybody have to live miserably ever after? She surely must be related to Thomas Hardy.
This book is only 87 pages long (my copy anyway) but Edith Wharton manages to tell a whopper of a tale in that small space. There is lots of great description, character development, and dialogue. Even the secondary characters are fairly well fleshed out with enough detail to make you feel you know them a little. It's amazing really, quite an achievement.
Wharton is a wonderful writer. Part of what I love about reading is finding a writer who can put into words a feeling I've never been able to articulate. An example: I've always believed it's possible to make some kind of life for yourself in any kind of circumstances but I never was able to say as she did in this book: "I chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotizing effect of routine, gradually began to find a dim satisfaction in life." I also love the freedom writers have to use words in ways that would be seen as odd in conversation. For example she says: "...one phrase stuck in my memory, and served as the nucleus around which I grouped my subsequent inferences...". That's a great sentence, but imagine saying it to your husband at the dinner table.
I particularly love that she has made Ethan a realistic character. He has moments of nobility along with moments of complete disregard for right and wrong. He appreciates the beauty of nature and even has a touch of the poet about him: "He looked out at the slopes bathed in lustre, the silver-edged darkness of the woods, the spectral purple of the hills against the sky, and it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his wretchedness...". (Poets do love their wretchedness.)
The only character I saw as a cliche was Ethan's wife, Zeena, but then in the last couple of pages she surprised me. I'd love to hear from others who have read this what you think went through Zeena's mind when they brought Ethan and Mattie home. Why the sudden change in her behaviour? And why change her behaviour but not her attitude, because she still seems pretty miserable at the end?
On one hand I think Ethan brought most of his problems on himself, but on the other hand I think life was unusually cruel to him and he deserved better. Whatever the cause of his misery, he's a memorable character you can't help but like. He made me wish the book was longer.
I do, and heartily, recommend this book, even if slogging through all that misery leaves me looking for a cup of hemlock. It does sound like Thomas Hardy doesn't it? I will keep reading both authours, in small doses, and well spaced between things a little more optimistic.