This is a peculiar little book. Imagine being in a marriage that just wasn’t meant to be and falling in love with somebody else who seems to really get you. Imagine that divorce and counseling just isn’t an option, and misery is all you have left looking forward to. This is a book about Ethan Frome, who is stuck in this particular situation. He marries his wife some years ago pretty much out of fear of being alone. Something tells me that the stress from his mother’s death had a lot to do with this rush decision. Plagued by a need for someone to be there for him, Ethan plunges into the commitment without really having any special feelings for the woman. This set up for the story made me stop for a minute, put down the book on my lap, and carefully think about the possibility of something like that happening to a person. To think of it, people throughout the ages have been marrying left and right not out of love, but out of necessity, ambition, fear of scandal, desperation, and numerous other reasons. How happy could these people really be? Perhaps, they count on learning to love the other person, just like they learned to walk and count to ten. Is it realistic to learn something like that?
Ethan too apparently planned to learn to love his wife, but Zenobia quickly turned out to be in need of care herself, slumping in a string of illnesses. I have a strong opinion that Zeena was in fact a hypochondriac with a Munchhausen syndrome, especially considering the change in her attitude at the end of the book. Leaving with a constantly cranky and sour woman, Ethan naturally became infatuated with Zenobia’s sweet and gentle cousin Mattie, who comes into the household as help. It was painful to see the turmoil of passions that both Ethan and Mattie were forced to hide under their reserved demeanor. An occasional touch and a slipped word were all they needed to exchange the tender promises of love. While adultery is a difficult subject to sympathize with, I certainly hoped to see the young lovers would find a way to be together. Unfortunately for my idealistic dreams, Ethan and Mattie decided on a very tragic path to their freedom.
Gosh, what a powerful little book! I keep wondering about the ending quite a bit: how do I interpret it? Was it a final unfair jeer of life at two innocent souls? Was it punishment for intended adultery? Was the outcome of Ethan and Mattie’s rush decision an ironic twist of fate? How did Wharton herself feel about these two? I could have sworn her sympathies were with them, but the few closing remarks left me doubting myself. I don’t know, I am no scholar, but it sure is fun to keep asking these questions, as if the answers will start falling from the ceiling. I cannot say that this book will take the place of an ultimate favorite in my heart – it is just rather too straightforward for that, – but I would give it four solid stars and a promise that I will come back to Wharton sometime in the future.