This book was basically the OG love affair novel of early 1900s American literature. You’ve got a troubled marriage, forbidden but passionate love, and the typical introverted and awkward male protagonist who is suddenly transformed into a romantic when infatuated by a captivating new stranger.
My version of this book included an introduction, which I surprisingly enjoyed. Usually I don’t read introductions if they’re not written by the author; a lot of the time, I think they provide irrelevant information. However, in this case, the introduction did an excellent job at explaining the historical context—which is especially important if you’re reading such an old text—and giving interesting details about Wharton’s life from which she drew inspiration.
The introduction also helped hype up the book by citing a few of the reactions from the time of its release. Reviews from sources like the New York Times called the book “gruesome” and “torture.” One even said it was “hard to forgive Wharton for the utter remorselessness of her latest volume.” Honestly, wanting to know what all the hype was about made me even more eager to dive into the story.
The main scandal of this book was adultery. No worries, I won’t reveal anything that you wouldn’t already know from reading the back of the cover: Ethan Frome falls in love with his wife’s cousin, Mattie. Something to keep in mind when reading the book is that you have to interpret the events from an early 20th century mindset: my first reaction was, “Of course cheating’s always wrong, but with his wife’s cousin!? That’s even worse!” But later in the story, it was “revealed” (in quotations because it wasn’t a big deal, just a detail mentioned in passing) that Ethan Frome’s wife is his cousin. So….what!? No one was freaking out about that!?
Remembering the context comes in handy because doing so enables you to distinguish what is and isn’t scandalous. To me, the whole “marrying your cousin” thing was a huge shock, but that wasn’t meant to be the big surprise at all. Knowing that also challenged my assumption that the adultery was worsened by the fact that it involved the wife’s cousin. Other things that would remind me of the time period were the characters’ adherence to traditional gender roles (men earn the money, women stay at home), the use of bearer bonds, and the lack of feminism.
The last point was the most obvious to me. There were so many parts in the book that said something along the lines of: “His firm voice and strong tone subdued her.” Such a domineering display of masculinity was…attractive? Ahhh, we’ve really come so far. Another example is this next line, said by Ethan Frome to his lover, which actually made me laugh out loud and wonder how this was ever considered romantic: “I don’t know how it is you make me feel, Matt. I’d a’most rather have you dead than that!” To which she sobbed back, “Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!” Oy. These people.
Those are all criticisms of the era, though, not the book. As for the latter, I considered the writing itself very high quality, although sometimes I’d find myself lost in the long sentences and descriptions. Overall, though, the story captivated me. My favorite line in the entire book was:
“He even noticed two or three gestures which, in his fatuity, he thought she kept for him: a way of throwing her head back when she was amused, as if to taste her laugh before she let it out….”
Taste. Her. Laugh. That was beautiful. Edith Wharton, you did a pretty good job.