CBR 10 Bingo: This Old Thing; published 1911
Ethan Frome has been on my reading list for years, ever since I was enchanted by Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, for which Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921. The Age of Innocence is a lovely tale of thwarted love and sadly not the book I’m reviewing today.
Ethan Frome is also a tale of lovers separated by circumstances, yet not nearly as engaging as Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The story takes place in a New England town called Starkfield and no, you’re not imagining the symbolism. In the prologue, a visitor to Starkfield narrates his encounters with a man named Ethan Frome. Frome walks with a limp, which the narrator learns was acquired in some sort of “smash-up” two decades earlier (smash-up being old-timey lingo for an accident). The narrator is surprised to learn that Frome is only fifty-two years old: he had taken him for a much older man due to his being so “stiffened and grizzled.”
As fate would have it, the narrator soon requires a driver to help him tend some business, and he hires Frome for a week. A snowstorm during one of their daily travels forces the narrator to stay overnight at Frome’s house, where he learns the circumstances that led to the terrible accident. At this point the Prologue ends and the story proper begins.
The main body of the story is about Frome falling in love with his wife Zeena’s cousin Mattie. Zeena is sickly and unpleasant. Mattie is fresh and young and full of life. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is obviously going to end in tragedy (maybe even a smash-up!).
Ethan Frome is not a bad novel. The plot is fairly basic, but there’s an interesting twist that isn’t revealed until the epilogue. But it does seem like a foundational step toward the highly-regarded prize-winning novel that Wharton would publish a decade later. Then again, according to Wikipedia, American literary critic Lionel Trilling criticized it by saying it lacked “moral or ethical significance,” which sounds like a resounding endorsement to me.