For my May monthly selection for the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge I decided to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. This is my first reading experience with Wharton, and I was very impressed. Ethan Frome was first published in 1911, but is set earlier, in a time before cars, when people lived very differently from how they do now. I listened to an unabridged edition of this book from Recorded Books read by George Guidall, and as soon as I started listening I knew I was hearing very fine writing.
The reason I joined the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge was to seek out books I’d normally never read, and to discover views of life that would be surprising and novel, and I think Wharton succeeded well with those goals. Ethan Frome is a very short novel that is often assigned to school kids to read, and I can understand why. The writing is vivid, sharp and full of details that should stimulate a lot of discussion with young modern minds. At one point Ethan talks about stars and constellations and regrets he wasn’t able to escape from small town life to become educated and pursue scientific ambitions. We seldom hear 19th century characters talk about science.
Ambition versus reality is a common thread throughout the story, and I can’t help but think any reader of this novel not comparing their own life with Ethan and Mattie. We all want more than we’re given, and Wharton creates a rather horrific analogy of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control. The heavy ironic ending would fit naturally into a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.
Classic novels of the past are a vehicle of time travel for me, especially ones like Ethan Frome that are written with a significant accumulation of details. I started listening to Ethan Frome just after listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction novel. I was surprised by the stark contrast of details and lack of details. Heinlein provided damn few details about his vision of the future, instead telling his story mostly in dialog. Wharton told her story in a chronicle of observations, descriptions of moods and voice, and sparse dialog. It would be fantastic if science fiction writers could make-up such realistic details about the future for their stories.
The Heinlein book was overtly about sexual relationships, but it was unrealistic. The Wharton book dealt with sexual undercurrents at a time when writers couldn’t write directly about sex. It was far more realistic.
* I was disturb by the number of out of print editions of Ethan Frome on the web that seemed to be no more than traps to get people to look at ads. In the old Internet days there were a few sites for free books that would nicely format the texts for reading online. These ad honeypots did not do that. A lot of these sites were geared to school kids, knowing they had to research the book. Some of these sites offered study guides, which is admirable, although the content on many were thin. I’m hoping over time some of these study guide sites will emerge as true centers of study, and not just for school kids. I think all of these book sites should try to format the text to make online reading easy, and offer links to common ebook formats for people who want to read on ebooks, PDAs, phones and laptops. It would also be nice if they could integrate their ads into a layout that is more appealing to the eyes. Fewer ads should get more attention, and if placed properly they shouldn’t detract from the content. Most of the time the layout was so bad I immediately closed my browser tab.