That feeling you get from exploring a good story. A bookish podcast discussing and reviewing books and films as I journey through my ever growing TBR backlog and watchlist.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome
Author : Edith Wharton
Published : Originally January 1st, 1911 – This edition January 1st, 1991 by Dover Publications
77 pages

When I decided to grab this book off my shelf I knew nothing about it. I had no idea what the story was about or what I was in for. So I took to my Instagram and asked my friends there who promptly told me, well, I’ll just show you.

Ethan Frome
Title: Ethan Frome
Page Count: 77
Published: 01/01/1911
Categories: ,
This grim tale delves into a love triangle between a husband, his wife, and her cousin. With a struggling marriage, a lifetime of poverty and an unfulfilling home life in front of him, Ethan finds himself having feelings for Mattie but the tryst is doomed from the start. This is a tale of despair set against the backdrop of a harsh New England winter, a perfect pairing.

Had the book not been so short, at just 77 pages, this MAY have been enough to persuade me to put it back on the shelf for another time. But given it was short and I still didn’t REALLY know much about what I was about to read, I began the journey.

By the way, special thanks to the online community for doing a terrific job of letting me know what the book was about WITHOUT SPOILING anything, I greatly appreciated that!

But what about the story?!

Fair point. I do tend to get sidetracked with my reviews and I’m working to fix that, but please bear with me! It’s not like I’m traditionally trained in writing, it’s a hobby I enjoy and I’m learning as I go, ok?!

All jokes aside, this story is dark. As in D A R K.

It takes the approach of starting in the “present” day as the story of Ethan is told to a woman that has just seen him walking through town and asks about who he is. It then jumps back in time to the events that form the main focus of the story, in all of their bitter details.

We see a man who has gone through so much, losing both parents, feeling trapped by a manipulative wife and living in poverty, finally have a glimmer of hope. But it’s a tortuous glimpse at an impossibility.

Those folks on Instagram weren’t kidding… this is a novel that is absolutely FULL of despair.

To the point that if it were any longer it would have been almost unbearable to finish

As dark as it is, there are some things to enjoy:

  • Excellent character writing – we truly FEEL the longing and ultimate despair
  • Amazing prose detailing the harshness of a northern winter
  • A nice(though depressing) twist at the end that really sinks the dagger into your heart

While that sounds like I loved this book, there are some things I didn’t care for:

  • Given it was written more than 100 years ago it has a feeling of being super dense. A lot is said in those 77 pages and the language takes some getting used to.
  • It IS a romance novel – though not one that gives us a “they lived happily ever after” ending. Romance novels really aren’t my thing.
  • The subject matter is VERY depressing and dark, make sure you’re prepared for that going in. This isn’t one to leave you feeling good when you’re finished.

At the end of the day, I can’t decide WHO the actual victim of this book is. Is it Ethan for being trapped by a wife that doesn’t love him, only wants him around to take care of her and cares not for any semblance of happiness in marriage? Is it Zeena, the wife finding herself with an unhappy husband who won’t be happy unless he leaves?

Or, is it cousin Mattie, stuck and wrapped up in this mess. One she loves and one that is her family and unable to do anything about either.

I don’t know, honestly the more I think about it, I’m not sure I really even care. I don’t think it really matters.

Ethan Frome presents a story in which there are no hero’s, no villains. Only people trapped in a miserable situation with plenty of despair, darkness, and depression to go around. It’s a grim picture of life for our three main characters, a brutal slice of life that is set against a truly beautiful depiction of a punishing winter in the north.

If there is one thing, besides the feeling of how dark this story is, that I can say about this book it’s this. Wharton has some of the most beautiful writing about the bleak winter moods that I’ve read in a long time. Oddly, that brutally punishing winter is possibly the most beautiful thing about this book, because the characters involved are all nothing but page after page of tortured despair.

If you enjoy a sad story that is driven by despair and darkness, a romance novel in the classic literature format, and a story that will leave you looking at your own marriage or relationships and have you feeling thankful you have it so good, then I highly recommend Ethan Frome.

Otherwise, much like for me, this book won’t have much to offer you aside from some beautiful prose about the bleakness of winter from Edith Wharton. That prose is the only thing keeping this from being 2 stars to be honest. This one just wasn’t for me, as the romance genre isn’t really something I enjoy most of the time(though this is almost more of an anti-romance). If you are on a quest to work through the classics, then this is a nice short one to check off your list, but as a story… well… it didn’t do it for me.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton gets 3 out of 5

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