I read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome because of a man I met in Maine.
His name was Paul, and he had his ear against the radio, listening to Bob Dylan harder than I’ve ever listened for anybody. He wore a shrunken wool sweater and had gray hair that puffed around his ears.
Of course, I’ve read Ethan Frome before. I read it in middle school or high school, I can’t remember which, and I had a a vague memory of the oppressive cold and sudden tragedy, and a stalwart character who moved through life carrying a tremendous burden on his shoulders.
Upon this second read, I was happy to verify that the story took place somewhere in Western Massachusetts, which is exactly where we live, and exactly where my son, Ethan, is beginning his formative years.
I really, really, loved this story. I have a soft spot for anything that is vast and circular, although the vastness here is in Ethan’s imagination, and the rich interior life he leads while fighting against the elements. He asks himself—what would have happened if Mattie had to leave in the spring, instead of the winter?
Ethan wildly and recklessly claims his love, just like the men he admired but could never be. I love how cowardly he is, and full of improbable strength. Paul told me that not only did he see himself in Ethan, but that he was the quintessential Maine man. I can see it!
Mattie’s transcendence from a sweet young girl in love to a bitter and irresolute fixture at Ethan’s household, living in her bitterness and mistake, is what makes this book worth it. It has an opposite ending of Wuthering Heights—here, there is no redemption. I haven’t read anything like it—maybe Sarah Plain and Tall?