Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

“All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others.”

Ethan Frome is a masterpiece. Alongside Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, it’s one of the best novellas I’ve read. I need more time to decide whether it has earned a place among my esteemed Favourite Books Ever — but the fact I’m even having the debate surely says it all. I can’t tell you whether I consider it Edith Wharton’s magnum opus, because this is the first time I’ve read her. But rest assured, The House of Mirth is in next month’s reading stack. Alongside Raymond Carver, Wharton’s an author I’m going to be returning to constantly in 2022.

In Ethan Frome our unnamed narrator spends a winter in the small Massachusetts town of Starkfield. It’s in the local post office that he happens upon Frome, whose demeanour, shambling gait, and red scar lining his face strike immediately make him “the most striking figure” in town. So, who is Ethan Frome, and how did he come to be this “run of a man”? We learn his limp is the result of a carriage smash-up more than two decades earlier; but what spawned his melancholy?

The unknown narrator frames the unveiling of Frome’s history, and his unhappy homestead with his sickly wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie, who lives with them as their housekeeper. Their story is a tragedy, and its unfolding is steeped in stomach-churning dread: we have seen Frome in the present, this doleful man, crushed both physically and spiritually. Events are expounded in prose where every sentence counts, and not a word is out of place: a triumph of literary precision. It’s hard to imagine I’ll read a better book this year.

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