Ethan Frome tells the story of the title character's doomed romance with his wife's cousin. This is a 'vision' of Ethan's story, told via the medium of an unnamed narrator. Married to Zeena, the woman who nursed his mother, Ethan has gradually fallen in love with Mattie, her cousin and their home help. Zeena is sickly and difficult while Mattie is young and cheerful. Ethan is jealous of her potential relationship with another villager at first but when the two get to spend an evening alone together, it's clear that his feelings are mutual. But Zeena has her suspicions and attempts to thwart the illicit relationship.
The title character is perhaps secondary to the harsh landscape that he inhabits. From the opening pages, this bleak environment takes centre stage and colours every scene. At no point during the story did I feel remotely happy or content - I was always unsettled and apprehensive, something that Wharton brilliantly suggests on every page.
Characterisation comes second to the setting but is inextricably linked to it. A few scenes linger in my memory, particularly one of the early ones where Ethan is spying on Mattie taking part in the village festivities and then makes himself known to her. Ethan is invoked brilliantly here as a character where in the framing story he has simply been a shadow of a man. Another memorable scene is the climactic one, where Ethan makes a dangerous decision, and the quiet scene that follows and concludes the novel.
Desolate and heartfelt, this is an engaging story that retained my interest until the final pages. The little twist was unexpected and I appreciated it, although it doesn't live on in my memory half as much as the bleak landscape does.