Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Or is that off the curriculum?

Current book: Ethan Frome
Pages read: 19 - 129 (end)

I have an inability to even see the title of this book without thinking of John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank asking his former English teaching is she's still "inflicting all of that horrible Ethan Frome damage" on her students. So, I guess you could call me prejudiced coming in, though I take all characterizations of high school reading with a grain of salt, having both been a hater of assigned texts myself and having taught high school English.

Ethan Frome details the life of the title character, who is a 50-something farmer living in Massachusetts, and has been crippled in an accident of some kind. Our narrator, a visitor to the village for a year, gradually uncovers the story of that accident during his stay, but gives it to us, the audience, in one big chunk, as follows. When Ethan was a young man, his mother was ill and the doctor sent a woman named Zenobia (I'm not making that up. I couldn't. Also, her nickname? Zeena. See? No way I'd expect you to believe that if I'd made it up.) to take care of her. After his mother's death, Ethan married that woman before he realized that he didn't love her and that she was a chronic hypochondriac. They spent several years in a loveless marriage, which mostly consisted of Zeena spending Ethan's hard-earned farm money and whining about how ill she was, before Mattie Silver, a distant relation of Zeena's, came to stay with them, both to help around the house and because she had no place else to go.

Mattie was bright and sweet and loving, and she and Ethan fell in love and danced around the edges of having an affair until Zeena kicked Mattie out. On the trip to the train station, Ethan and Mattie decided they'd rather die than be separated and attempted to commit suicide by running their horse-drawn sledge into a tree. They were both gravely injured, but neither was killed. Flashing back to the present, the narrator ends up spending the night in the Frome household and discovers that ever since, Zeena has been playing nursemaid to Mattie, and Ethan has been trapped with both his horrible wife and the now-bitter Mattie, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Cheery, huh? Nothing like a botched suicide pact and a life of constant regret and misery to get you going. Honestly, it wasn't actually that bad. The writing was pretty decent, with some lovely descriptive work. I was engaged with the story, regardless of the fact that it was clearly going to end in tragedy, and I have to hand it to Edith Wharton for not stretching this thing into 300 pages. Other authors of the time would have, and it didn't need the length. It needed the number of pages it actually got, which was a refreshing change from most of these novels, in order to clearly communicate the plot and the themes thereof. Obviously it presents the bleakness of life and circumstance, especially that of marriage and the tight-knit and therefore constrictive society of New England, but I almost pin it more as a cautionary tale than anything else. It seems to me to say something more along the lines of, "Be careful when you make decisions regarding love, but when it's right, for God's sake, go for it," than it does, "We're all doomed to misery and despair." The fact that the anonymous narrator is still an unmarried man early in his life, and has met and observed Ethan Frome, gives us the sense that for the narrator, at least, it's not too late.

I'm not sure if it's one of the best 100. It's decent, but I don't feel particularly affected. Then again, I'll probably think about it later, and that's a good sign. Borderline, I suppose.

I'll leave you with one of the more delightful moments, which was a description of the Fromes' cat.
"The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena's seat to the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction of the milk-jug."

Don't tell me you don't have an instant picture of that.

1 comment:


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