I rarely indulge in what most consider ‘the classics’. Although generally well-written, I find them too literary for my taste. But, as any writer knows, reading a wide variety of genres and peppering your choices with literary fiction will never hurt you in your own craft.
So, today I picked up a book I’d read many years ago. So long really that I remembered very little of it.
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a novella at 102 pages. The writing is tight and concise, the characters are rich and one of the things I like best, the book is light on description. I appreciate the broad strokes laid out for me, such as race, anything unique that would not come to light if not for the author’s inclusion, but I prefer to paint my own mental picture of the finer details. Let’s face it, unless the heroine’s eyes are colored like a rainbow, that detail really isn’t important and I will imagine her the way I think she looks, not the way the author tells me. *Readers aren’t stupid!
Among contemporary writers, Nicholas Sparks is probably best known for his tragic love stories. But before him, there was Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome is exactly that, a tragic love story. There is no sex. There is no ‘chase’. It is a straightforward romance with a tragic ending.
Ethan is a man of impeccable morals, always one to do the right thing, even at the cost of his own happiness. He lives within the very rigid confines of right and wrong, love and despair. The one time he side-steps right from wrong, his life is changed forever.
His wife, Zeena, is a hypochondriac. She is also calculating, selfish, and black-hearted and Wharton does a wonderful job of creating a character the reader will love to hate. But just as Ethan could not release himself from his duties and marital obligations, neither could she when the roles suddenly reversed. Karma intervened.
Mattie is Zeena’s cousin and the object of Ethan’s affection. Although she lives with them for a year in order to take care of Ethan’s sickly wife, neither Ethan nor Mattie act on the attraction. Instead, when they are forced to part, they decide being apart would be far worse than dying together. In this rash leave of his good senses, Ethan agrees to Mattie’s request, forever altering their health, their lives, and their relationship.
Wharton’s prose is poetic and full of emotion and clarity. This book speaks from the deepest recesses of the human heart. I highly recommend it even if literary fiction is not your first choice in a read.