Monday, December 12, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Ethan Frome'

The Book: Ethan Frome

The Author: Edith Wharton

How I Found It: I quickly became a Wharton fan following this summer's reading of The House of Mirth, and wanted to read this short book after becoming curious about the premise. This was my second experiment with Dailylit.

The Review: An unnamed visitor arrives in Starkfield, Massachusetts, and finds his otherwise chatty neighbors oddly reticent about one subject--the past of Ethan Frome, a badly disfigured man who interacts with few and who the townspeople interact with even less. When the visitor hires Frome as his driver for a time, he realizes that Ethan has dreams even he wouldn't have guessed--he's interested in science, for one, and once had an opportunity to leave oppressively wintry Starkfield behind and go to Florida. So why didn't he take it?

Eventually, the visitor has the story "bit by bit, from various people," and the reader learns said story through an extended flashback. Years earlier, Ethan was a healthy young man living in a house with two women: his sickly wife, Zeena, and Zeena's cousin, Mattie Silver, who's been acting as the hired help Zeena needs. Ethan has long since grown weary of Zeena's perhaps faked ailments, and is fighting an attraction to Mattie--one that Mattie apparently reciprocates. When Zeena announces that she will leave for a night to see a new doctor in an adjacent town, Ethan and Mattie are faced with a night alone that might see them acknowledging their feelings--or that could set the course for a great tragedy.

Edith Wharton is one of those writers who simultaneously makes me want to worship her skills and cry at my lack of talent. Just like The House of Mirth, so many passages here arrested me with their beauty and romanticism. I loved this one in particular: "Ethan felt confusedly that there were many things he ought to think about, but through his tingling veins and tired brain only one sensation throbbed: the warmth of Mattie's shoulder against his. Why had he not kissed her when he held her there? A few hours earlier he would not have asked himself the question. Even a few minutes earlier, when they had stood alone outside the house, he would not have dared to think of kissing her. But since he had seen her lips in the lamplight he felt that they were his." There's so much restrained desire there, just in those little images--Mattie's shoulder pressing against his, or the glimpse of her lips in the lamplight. There's passion here, sure, but it's controlled and nothing overtly steamy. Needless to say, I doubt something like this would get written today.

Like in The House of Mirth, I really felt for Wharton's characters and wanted to see them succeed or, alternatively, fail. I was excited for Ethan and Mattie to get a night together without Zeena. I may or may not have been hoping for some terrible fate to befall the frigid Zeena. I wished the townspeople could help out Ethan somehow, even knowing they couldn't. It was amazing to me that in such a short book, Wharton gave every major character a backstory and developed them fully. I knew how Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie got from Point A to Point B. I'm sure that for most this makes the book slow-moving--the plot is often intercut with backstory--but I tend to enjoy quiet, character-driven stories, and this was one of them.

I was actually surprised this was by the same woman who wrote Mirth, while simultaneously not surprised at all. This isn't a book like that one, where there's a great overarching plot held together by many tiny details and instances. This is a fairly slight book that mainly follows only a few days in the life of three people. There's no glamorous parties on yachts or gambling at cards; there is bad snow and harder times than even Lily Bart would know. There might not be all that much of a plot--it's a character study more than anything--but there's the same depth of feeling and character that made me love The House of Mirth, and that was exactly what didn't surprise me.

I watched the 1993 film adaptation on the merits of its stellar cast--Liam Neeson (Ethan), Patricia Arquette (Mattie), Joan Allen (Zeena), and Tate Donovan (the visitor, here named Rev. Smith). I've really liked their work in other things, and I was curious to see them all together.

While the film does some things for the sake of what it presumes the audience would want (hi, sex scene, mildly confused to see you here), it did other things quite well. The smash-up was bloodier than I anticipated and pretty horrific, all told, and actually seeing how badly Ethan's body was wrecked (well-played by Liam Neeson) made the story even more heartbreaking. Patricia Arquette and Liam Neeson were believable as Ethan and Mattie, even if the accents got a little distracting at times! Certain things did get overdramatic (I think I understood Mattie's desperation towards the end well enough without her trying to poison herself), but most other elements of the core Ethan/Mattie plot were nicely done.

Joan Allen and Tate Donovan both did well with smaller roles (Zeena's actually not too small a role, but it's still not much compared to Ethan or Mattie). I liked the choice to show bits and pieces of Ethan and Zeena's younger days, before Zeena's illnesses set in; that was clever and a good way to show what Ethan once saw in her. Tate Donovan didn't have much to do other than righteous indignation at the treatment of the Fromes, but he and Katharine Houghton made the final scene really chilling and sad.

The film was overall a pretty good adaptation, but I don't think it quite matches the book in my mind. It's a nice supplement, but not an absolute must-see. The book, on the other hand, is marvelous, if depressing. Best not to be read in winter! If you want to give Edith Wharton a spin, this one is short and easy to read. See you on the other side!

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