Hamish's Reviews > Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
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Jul 02, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: lit

I've come to realize that it's a lot easier for me to explain my issues with a book that I didn't like or one I had mixed feelings about than it is to give a great one its due. But I'll try.

One of the things that's magical about Ethan Frome is that Wharton lets the world live. It's a short book and it takes place in a little town, but she fills that town with buildings and hills and landmarks that you get to know and minor characters who seem to have their own lives rather than just existing to fulfill certain plot needs. For example, our narrator learns part of the story from a widow named Mrs. Hale. When he relates that story to the reader, we learn it takes place in the past when a younger Mrs. Hale was soon going to marry. Her future father in law is a carpenter, and at one point the protagonist attempts to get an advance on the lumber he is selling Mr. Hale (because carpenters need lumber), but Hale can't do it because he needs the money for his son's wedding. It's small, but it's one of many details that mark the work of a real artist. Wharton doesn't just write plots, she creates little worlds.

You could argue that one of the short-comings in her novels is that she spends so much time picking apart the motivations and thoughts of her characters and the implications of all of their actions, and it causes the plot to move a little too slowly and it loses some of its dramatic power. Especially in her longer works you can get a bit of a drag (semi-related aside: Wharton gets compared to James a lot, and I think that criticism applies a lot more to him than to her. Wharton is like James minus all of his bad tendencies). But this is a novella and there's no drag at all. Every section seems designed for maximum dramatic impact and by the end it's almost unbearably moving. You can see all of the lines slowly converging and, even though you know it's inevitable, it's still painful. And then she throws in that little twist at the end which is like a twist of the knife she's already stabbed you with.

I've liked everything I've read by Wharton, but I always felt like they fell just short of being great. I wanted a classic from her and this is it.
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