March 20th, 2013
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome had been on my “this book seems interesting to me” list ever since I read the New Yorker article that Jonathan Franzen wrote, while the specifics of the article faded away rather quickly, the general sense that I should be reading more of her work stayed with me. We have done a version of this book for our public domain ebooks, and I glanced through it briefly, which gave me an idea of the tone and scope of the novel. But upon a closer reading, it’s actually quite incredible what Wharton accomplishes in the novella–she tells the entire story of the very sad, very tragic lives of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie with brevity, which actually allows for the weight of what happens to them to settle without it feeling overwhelming.
In short, Ethan’s unhappily married to a hypochondriac woman. Zeena wasn’t always that way–there was a point where she helped Ethan’s family out immensely (the reason they married), but for years they’d been engaged in a psychological battle. Zeena’s “illnesses” defining reasons why their lives are incapable of moving forward. When Mattie shows up, a poor cousin of Zeena’s without anywhere else to go, Ethan’s life changes. And when Zeena leaves for a far-flung doctor’s appointment, the two nights he and Mattie spend together have the potential to change their unhappy lives forever. For upon her return, Zeena means to turn Mattie out, and as she’s his last glance at happiness, Ethan will do anything to prevent it from happening.
Oh, the heartbreak in this little book. It’s truly and completely engrossing. Her choice of words, how she structures the story, it all comes together in a way that elevates the everyday-ness of the events to new levels. Parts of the house is described (and I’m paraphrasing) as “grungy” even for this poor area. Ethan schlumps and slogs through his life despite his relatively young age, and Zeena, with her greasy hair and dowdy clothes remains unbearable from day one. The narrator’s removed–a stranger, an outsider–they’re able to honestly look at what happened in ways that someone intimately involved with the events in the book would be unable to. Does their slight poverty increase the tragic elements in the novel? Absolutely. But it doesn’t define them. They act the way they do simply because they have no choice to otherwise. It’s a novel that explores how limited the choices are for women of a certain class, and it does that expertly. In a way, I enjoyed this little book even more than I enjoyed The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, both books I adore, by the way, because of its simplicity and sadness.
December 23rd, 2008
What more can I possibly add to decades upon decades of criticism about George Eliot’s masterwork, Middlemarch, one of the best novels ever written? Nothing original, I’d have to say. All I think I can do is comment upon why I enjoyed the novel so very much. Set against the “provincial community” of Middlemarch, England, a group of intertwining stories create a pastoral-like landscape peopled by the (somewhat) upper classes. This isn’t the territory of The Duchess per se, but more an extension of Austen’s kind, good, solid people from good, solid backgrounds trying to better their lives.
Eliot’s broad strokes and epic storylines hold all the characters in check. There’s Dorothea, a beautiful girl with a mind of her own who marries poorly and is then trapped into a terrible codicil by her ridiculous husband, Casaubon. Dorothea’s somewhat silly sister Celia, their Uncle Brooke, a landowner, and his “pet project,” Will Ladislaw, a young man of great curls and not much else, who is a cousin of Dorothea’s husband. There’s the doctor, Lydgate, his wife Rosamund (silly, silly girl), her brother Fred and his beloved, Mary (will she ever accept his hand in marriage; will he ever stop being foolish?). And then all the parents and rectors and other doctors and clergymen and their mothers and aunts and so on and so on. Goodness, their stories intertwine almost as much as their bloodlines, indeed. And it’s amazing to me how the author kept it all straight. The ways in which the novel progresses, the scope of the story, and her consistent and unwavering narrative voice all combine for an utterly delightful (there’s really no other way of putting it) reading experience.
But what I enjoyed most about the book is Eliot’s heightened, almost philosophical prose. Her pages of snappish, witty dialogue, the lovely way she has of creating a character by broad, sweeping strokes and then allows the reader to get to know them even better as the 800+ pages trundle on like a good walk through the countryside. Happiness finds some people, but not all of the characters. Distressing, even traumatic events happen, but it all works out in a way as it ultimately should, with grand love stories and well-intentioned elders making way for the next generation to carry on. Leave many hours in front of you if you want to tackle this book — it’s perfect for long days with nothing to do except read so your imagination can picture the dresses, the landscape, Ladislaw’s curls, the horses, Raffles, and everything else in Eliot’s world. It’s a book for the dreamers among us, that’s for sure.
READING CHALLENGES: Another one for the 1001 Books challenge, of which I am going to come in woefully incomplete before year’s end…