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Ethan Frome (Penguin Classics)

Ethan Frome - Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton If you kind of liked Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, but found it just a bit too irritatingly upbeat, this might be the book you’ve been looking for. I guess Ethan Frome is commonly assigned for 8th or 9th graders, but it was never was for me. Like A Separate Peace, it’s one of those stories that tells you the universe doesn’t give a fuck whether you’re happy or not. Moreover, if you make bad decisions, it may be very difficult or even impossible to recover from them. There are probably a lot of kids who could stand to hear that message; certainly a snot-nosed 13 year old BirdBrian could have.Protagonist Ethan Frome is in a loveless marriage to killjoy hypochondriac Zeena (Zenobia). They’re not bad people; just ill-suited to each other. No chemistry; no nothing; they just cohabitate a farmhouse in rural Western Massachusetts together. It was only a quirky impulse that ever even moved Ethan to propose marriage in the first place. He comments at one point that if his mother had died in spring instead of winter, he never would have considered marrying Zeena. Nice. If your marriage rests on such a dubious foundation, on one hand it’s terribly sad. On the other hand, it is fucking absurd and pathetic. Get it together, Man! Choice of mate is one of the BIG decisions in life- put a little thought into it! If you want to just marry some random person who you have no feelings for on an impulse, the universe certainly isn’t going to stop you. If ever a situation called for a little effort expended to ensure a good outcome, this is it.Enter Mattie (Matilda) -a thoughtful, energetic, lovely, warm, and engaging young woman Zeena hires to help around the house. “Matt”appreciates Ethan’s good qualities, which are mainly that he is hard-working, decent, and kind. Over time, love blossoms between Mattie and Ethan… not lust, but honest-to-goodness deeply-felt soulmate I-want-to-grow-old-with-you love. What’s Ethan to do? He spends a lot of time contemplating options, but never takes action. If he wants to sit on the pot forever, the universe could care less; it’s not there to help him. In fact, Fate eventually intervenes to take Mattie away (the details aren’t important). What does Ethan do when he sees the love of his life leaving for all time? Nothing. And what does the universe do to help him out? Nothing. The two platonic lovers build up to a tearful “goodbye forever”, which is painful to read. Painful, because you feel for them, and painful because everybody is just coasting along this miserable path, without speaking up or acting out to improve their chance at happiness. And the universe is content to let ‘em.On a last-minute impulse, Ethan and Mattie decide they can’t take the intense despair they’re feeling. They form a suicide pact. They decide… to ride a sled into a tree. This has drawn some criticism in other reviews because- you know, most people don’t really think of sledding as all that dangerous, and most of the crappy sleds I’ve ever been on don’t even get fast enough to be fun, let alone kill me. Still… Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy both died in skiing accidents, which is kind of close to sledding, so I decided to accept this without too much fuss. (Jumping off a cliff or something like that would have been less weird though.)So suicide-by-sled, huh? The problem is, the attempt fails. The story ends twenty years later- Mattie is incapacitated and embittered by the crash. Ethan is healed up in a twisted form, and is in constant pain. Zeena, betrayed, stays around to care for the two out of pure social/economic necessity. All three have (or think they have) reason to hate themselves and each other. It’s a bit like the ending to that play No Exit. The closing scene is just a completely miserable bummer, with no silver lining whatsoever. And the universe could give a fuck about any of them.