Ethan Frome is a farmer in Starkfield, Massachusetts, at the beginning of the 20th century. He is unhappily married to Zenobia (Zeena), a suspicious, hypochondriac, bitter, narrow-minded, ignorant and discontented woman. He is strongly attracted to Zeena's cousin Mattie Silver who shares their household and is entrusted with all the chores which Zeena refuses to do. Ethan's tragic fate begins when Zeena peremptorily decides that they need a "hired girl" which would of course imply Mattie's departure since the Fromes don't have the means to employ two girls.
A novel of great intensity with its slow developing tragedy and characters plunging towards their destiny. The author's masterful economy of language vividly renders the oppressive "silent ache" that permanently hinders communication between Ethan and Zeena. The vision of the three main characters is done in an almost cinematic way as they are trapped indoors in the severe Massachusetts winter. The narrative pattern is original too since the whole plot is told by an unnamed narrator who met the taciturn Ethan many years after the events he is about to tell us. The reader has moments of doubt when the narrator tells a story in all details and long passages of dialogue he could not possibly have known or heard during his meeting with Ethan. But Edith Wharton's extraordinary craft makes the story break away from the contingencies of the frame and it comes to moving life for the reader. A superb novel, one of the finest and most intense narratives in the history of American literature.