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4.4 out of 5 stars29
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 13 February 2012
What a gem! I found this when browsing to stock up my new Kindle, and despite being fairly well read had never come across it before.

The central character Ethan Frome is the classic strong silent hero, who endures a suffocating existence with his bitter, hypochondriac (and probably seriously depressed) wife in their isolated home. When his wife's young cousin comes to live with them to help out she is a breath of fresh air, and Ethan falls desperately in love with her. The novel is written in flashback, so that you read with a sense of impending doom and hopelessness, adding a poignant edge to the developing relationship between Ethan and Mattie.

This is a lovely book, sensitively written in a vivid, lively style (to me it reads like a contemporary novel). I read it In just two sittings, wished it was longer, and will definitely be reading more Wharton.
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From the beginning of this beautifully written novella we know that it will end in tragedy, as we see the middle-aged Ethan Frome, half-crippled and withdrawn, and looking older than his years. We are told his injuries date back to his 'smash-up' twenty-four years ago. The book then takes us back to that time, when Ethan was a young man in his prime, but struggling to scratch a living from a failing farm and shackled to a sickly wife he couldn't love. The only happiness in his life comes from his growing love for Mattie, cousin to Ethan's wife Zeena - a young girl left on her own in the world and reliant on Zeena's cold charity.

The tone of the book is uncompromisingly tragic with no humour or joy or feeling of hope to lighten it. The story takes place over a few short days in the depths of winter and Wharton uses the frozen icy landscape to great effect, both symbolically and actually, as Ethan struggles to find a way out of the trap of his life. Because we know that we are heading towards the smash-up, and because we know that Ethan is still in the town years later, the tension comes from not knowing exactly what form the tragedy takes.

Looked at coldly, none of the three main characters is particularly admirable. Ethan is a weak man, who has married out of fear of being alone and now resents his wife for indulging in an illness in which he doesn't quite believe. Zeena is shown as cold and selfish - too lazy to give Ethan the help and support he needs. And simple, pure little Mattie is so weak and alone, so desperate to be loved. But our narrator only learned the story many years later and much of it from Ethan himself, so how much faith can we put in these pictures of Zeena and Mattie? Is Zeena's illness real or imagined - physical or psychological? How much is she affected by the solitude and drudgery of the farm, and by the lack of love she finds there? Is Mattie really the helpless little thing we see, or is Ethan's view of her distorted by his own passion?

I freely admit it - I sobbed for most of the last quarter of the book. As we approached ever nearer to the tragedy, Wharton's emotional writing managed to make me feel a sympathy for Ethan that temporarily suppressed my desire to tell him to stop whinging and blaming other people for the misery of his life. Little Mattie didn't get quite as much of my sympathy, I confess - I really wanted to tell her that if she worked as hard at making herself likeable to Zeena as she did making herself irresistible to Ethan, then the three of them might have managed to rub along together pretty well. And as for Zeena - well, I'm still not sure how I feel about her, to be honest. She's the enigma at the heart of the story - though she's overtly portrayed as cruel and selfish, it is also quite possible to see her as a victim fighting to hold on to her place in a world where women are still restricted to the domestic sphere and defined by marriage. And it's the enigma of Zeena that makes this just a little more than a bleak and tragic love story. Well written and interesting, with great use of descriptive writing to build atmosphere and with something to say about the society in which it's set, this novella has left me intrigued to read more of Wharton's work.
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on 27 January 2012
Ethan Frome is the tale of a Massachusetts farmer, his unhappy marriage to Zenobia, and his love for her cousin, Mattie Silver, who lives with them as a housemaid.

The skill of Edith Wharton is in showing the psychology of her characters; Zenobia's hypochondriacal bitterness; Ethan's psychological indebtedness to his wife and his consequent weakness in dealing with her; and Mattie's vulnerability are all brilliantly portrayed.

The wintry backdrop and the bleakness of Starkfield, Massachusetts are beautifully described. The sparse intensity of the dialogue is superb and the inevitable tragedy of the story is deftly revealed.

There is a slightly questionable use of point of view which detracts a little from the story, but nevertheless this is an outstanding book.
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on 2 December 2013
This is a perfect novella: a taut daydream based on rumour, intuition and innuendo of how a man's life was lived. Shades of Thomas Hardy's short stories, Wuthering Heights and a preview of Robert Frost's road not taken.

You could read it in one sitting yet it may haunt you indefinitely.
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on 1 January 2014
It's a short novel along the lines of Marilyn Robinson. A bit sad and miserable about a wretched man and his inability to assert himself in life. It's told as a tale by an engineer who is intrigued about a twisted tortured looking man in the snowbound community he finds himself visiting to work in. A chance stopover one night reveals the history of the man. It's a bit like the history of a bedevilled family without any let up and probably symbolises the inability of women to ever escape the shackles of their destiny.
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on 30 March 2014
I adored this book. It went straight into my top five all-time favourites. The harsh yet beautiful isolation of the setting is superbly realised. The characters' repressed emotions, their understated passion, and unspoken resentments sizzle in the silence. Masterful storytelling – poignant, moving, frustrating, and bleak beyond words. The blurb said something about the setting rivalling that of Wuthering Heights (another favourite of mine), and I agree. Recommended.
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on 8 February 2015
There are few books I read in high school that i remember as clearly as this one. I was surprised how little I had forgotten. It lacks the rich web of language from Wharton's other books so doesn't draw you in as completely. However, the sparsity is in keeping with the barrenness of the lives it describes. I'm not sure you can read this book any time but in the depths of winter.
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on 8 September 2013
This short work is, in my view, one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. The cold, desolate landscape forms the backdrop to the intense, tragic tale of its eponymous hero. Edith Wharton ranks among the very greatest novelists and in Ethan Frome her creativity and craftsmanship are demonstrated to perfection.
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on 8 September 2014
A classic, though not too difficult to read and has a great story to engage the reader, as well as an ironic twist at the end. Had to read it over the summer for my degree, and it was certainly one of my favourites on the reading list. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly.
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on 8 March 2014
The stark nature of the prose complements the bleakness of the story. The end is a vision of a human created hell. Wharton writes endings as psychologically deep as any Victorian novelist. Ethan Froome sits with Age of Innocence at the peak of her work.
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