Well, if you are looking for a cheery book, this isn’t for you! But if you want a book that eloquently takes you further and further down a despairing path, you’ve knocked on the right door, much as our enigmatic narrator does when one bleak winter he finds himself stuck and he’s welcomed, well almost, into the Frome’s home.
By the time our narrator hears the story we already know that Ethan looks older than his years, he walks with a pronounced limp and is taciturn in the extreme, but as to his past, the other residents of Starkfield, Massachusetts are not inclined to say. Our narrator is then treated to this tragic tale which involves Ethan, his wife Zeena and her cousin Mattie.
A story of a marriage which has turned sour although it’s clear that Zeena was a different woman, at least in Ethan’s eyes when she first came to Starkfield to care for Ethan’s mother but a mere seven years later, Zeena is unwell. It is up for debate that her reliance on doctors and patent medicines is a necessity or hypochondria.
“Ethan looked at her with loathing. She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding.”
Ethan life is cheered when Mattie comes to live in their house to help the ailing Zeena because she brings conversation and a sparkle to the miserable cold life that the pair share. And of course he can’t help but compare the two women and no prizes for who comes off better out of such a comparison. With his habitual reticence Ethan becomes fonder of Mattie and the wheels are set in motion for a tragedy of epic proportions.
For such a slim novel it soon becomes apparent why this is a classic. The writing is beautiful and it effortlessly conjures up the Frome house, the winter in Starkfield that almost becomes a character in its own right.
“The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked grey against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.”
The author really allows the third person narrative to paint the picture for us, her readers in a way Ethan never could do – after all he barely speaks which prompts the thought of why he decides to bare his soul to the man who is seeking shelter in his house. But out rolls the story of the misery of Ethan’s life. First his father’s illness curtailed his brief foray into the world where he studied engineering. Ethan was dragged back to the farm and mill, already floundering would literally become a millstone around his neck. Then his mother fell ill and Zeena cared for her only to marry Ethan and become an invalid herself. Oh but dear reader, this is just the start!
In the hands of a lesser writer all of this unhappiness could have got too much but I finished the book with a huge lump in my throat and yet a deep-seated longing that the book would last just a little bit longer.
Ethan Frome is number 8 on The Classics Club list and the second of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed. A tragedy of mammoth proportions that stole a piece of my heart.