Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome    

Edith Wharton (Adult Fiction)

It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.  Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives.  But Mrs. Hale had said, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” and he felt less alone with his misery.

Ethan Frome’s daily existence is just as cold, bleak, and barren as the winters in his Starkfield, MA hometown.  His farm is in neglect, his mill is in decline, and whatever money he has left goes to the care and treatment of his ever sickly, spiteful, and sour wife, Zeena.  The only bright spot is Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin who comes to the farm to act as housekeeper and caregiver.  Though highly moral and virtuous, Ethan can’t deny the forbidden feelings he has for Mattie and can’t help imagining an alternate life where the two of them might be together and happy.

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and it’s no surprise why after reading Ethan Frome.  Only an author as skilled as Wharton can make bleakness so beautiful and tragedy so fascinating.  Here’s how she describes Mrs. Ned Hale, the daughter of the village lawyer: “It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any social superiority to the people about her; it was only that the accident of a finer sensibility and a little more education had put just enough distance between herself and her neighbors to enable her to judge them with detachment.”  What a delicious way of saying that Mrs. Ned Hale was nothing but an uppity and moralistic snob…although to her credit, she is quite fond of our Mr. Frome and sympathetic to his unfortunate circumstances.

In anyone else’s hands, Ethan Frome would be a very dark, depressing, and dispirited story, which it undoubtedly is.  However, Wharton presents readers with a thoughtful and illustrative commentary on morality, responsibility, and the burdens that come with decency, loyalty, and honor.  I was quite surprised to find that Ethan Frome was made into a movie in 1993 (starring Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, and Joan Allen).  My first and only reaction to this discovery was, “Why?”  Once you’ve read Wharton’s 1911 novella, you know that translating her words to film is not going to have the same impact and would only spell doom (and Roger Ebert agreed).  One reviewer of the book likened Ethan Frome to Romeo and Juliet, but if Wharton were to hear this comparison, I would imagine her reply being something like, “Oh, if Ethan and Mattie should only be so lucky.”  Frome’s story is pathetic, cruel, sad, and hopeless and we love him all the more for it.

I put off reading Ethan Frome for a while as I had always imagined it to be a daunting and challenging read, but it was actually quite engaging and immersive, and I never felt overwhelmed by its imagery or subject matter.  It’s truly deserving of the term “classic” and although I didn’t form a connection with this particular work (which is why I rated it a four versus five), it has given me the confidence to seek out other works by Wharton, which I will do without fear of consequence.  If only Ethan Frome was capable of doing the same.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.simonandschuster.ca

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Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

At thirty-nine years old, Charlie Beale arrived in the town of Brownsburg, Virginia (population 538) in a beat-up truck and toting two suitcases—one holding his clothes and a set of butcher knives and the other filled with cash.  Brownsburg is a town where prestige is measured by the size of your floral blooms and the yield of your vegetable garden, where no one divorced, schools let out in May so the children could help with the family’s planting, and everyone believed in God and The Book.  It’s 1948 and as soon as Charlie drove into Brownsburg, he knew he was home.  When he saw Sylvan Glass, the teenage bride of the town’s wealthiest resident, he knew that he was heading to something wonderful.  But Brownsburg is a small town and news—good, bad, and particularly scandalous—travels fast and Charlie is about to find out that wonderful comes with a very hefty price tag.

If I were to give half ratings, this book would lean more towards three-and-one-half stars, but I gave it a three simply because the last twenty pages of the book were so severe and such a drastic departure from the rest of the story that it left me feeling confused and a bit angry.  Goolrick is a wonderful storyteller and gives readers an idyllic town where folks sit on their front porch and gossip and the shop merchants know what you want before you cross their threshold.  Being a small town, we know that no good will come from Charlie and Sylvan’s illicit relationship and that it is doomed from the beginning; however, Goolrick’s handling of these star-crossed lovers is not only severe, it’s incomprehensible.  The last few pages are such a stark contrast to the rest of the story, that it begs one to question what could possibly have made Goolrick deviate so unbelievably from his story and characters?  It was almost as if he handed the remainder of his novel to someone else and said, “You take it from here.”

When Charlie entered Will Haislett’s butcher shop looking for a job, Will said to him, “Let me tell you something, son.  When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right.  And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”  The problem with Heading Out to Wonderful, is that we started out in Wonderful and were able to happily hang out and enjoy the scenery for a bit, but somehow we missed a sign or drove too far or made a right instead of a left and suddenly found ourselves far away from Wonderful and instead somewhere between All Right and Okay.  Unfortunately, Charlie Beale didn’t have the luxury of GPS tracking in 1948.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

The Distinguished Guest by Sue Miller

The Distinguished Guest

The Distinguished Guest

Sue Miller (Adult Fiction)

“It is probably fair to ask to what extent Lily Maynard is conscious of the effect she makes, but it’s not a question you’ll easily find the answer to.”

Lily Roberts Maynard reached literary fame at age seventy-two with The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir.  She’s had moderate success with various fictional short stories that followed, but nothing to the scale of her memoir.  Now Lily, who was once celebrated and sought after, finds herself living in relative seclusion with her architect son, Alan, and his wife as Parkinson’s disease slowly consumes her body and mind.  Finding themselves once again under the same roof, both Lily and Alan confront decisions made in the past while trying to find a way to move forward.

This is the third book by Sue Miller that I’ve read (the other two being The World Below and Lost in the Forest) and I continue to find myself underwhelmed with her work.  The Distinguished Guest is described as a “moving story of a mother and son”, but in reality, Miller gives us a story of a mother and son…and her late husband…and her deceased parents, as well as a son…and his wife…and his two siblings…and his two sons.  Throw in a visiting journalist who has her own messy backstory and you have a novel simply overburdened and overwhelmed with relationships.  This might be the reason I have trouble connecting with Miller’s books.  She inundates her stories with too many character profiles, backstories, and conflicts that spread the reader’s focus entirely too thin and leave little or nothing left to hold onto.  Just as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, Miller gives us far too many relationships that ultimately spoil the story.

I wish I liked this book more since there are several interesting and important issues that Miller encounters head on: race relations, religious faith versus spirituality, social conformity, and infidelity.  But these subjects are not enough to lift The Distinguished Guest from its own emotional saturation and social mire.  Ayn Rand once said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”  In this case, a few less cooks would have made for a much more pleasing broth.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com