Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton
Wow. I really loved this book, but it was So. Freakin’. Depressing.
Ethan Frome is an unhappy man who hopelessly bears the burden of working his family’s failing farm in early 20th century Starkfield (a fictional New England town). After his father is killed in an accident and his mother withers away toward death from illness, Ethan marries the woman who nursed his mother, and who then succumbs to “sickliness” herself. Like his mother, his wife Zeena becomes as quiet and cold as the dilapidated, wind and snow pummeled house in which they live. The sole spark of joy and inspiration in Ethan’s life is Mattie Silver, Zeena’s younger cousin, who is brought to help around the house. As Mattie and Ethans’ feelings for one another grow, their dread of Zeena’s suspicions grow also, and the tension builds in a painful crescendo.
Each of the three, unable to shake their poverty and/or dependence, is unable to do what might finally secure their happiness. But by the end, just as you’re convinced that you understand what must happen to make this drama complete, that there’s only one possible way to end this story, and you see it unfolding…Wharton surprises you. With something SO MUCH WORSE THAN YOU IMAGINED.
Seriously. It hurts.
Which is not to say Don’t Read It. It’s concise, brisk, engaging, well-constructed, and elegant, in a bleak sort of way. As I said, I really loved it. But have a box of tissues ready, and make sure you leave yourself a nice block of time for a hot bath and decompression upon completing this one.