Reviews of Books I Was Forced To Read in High School, Part 1: Ethan Frome

By all accounts, Edith Wharton is not a sadist. Although she did marry
a man twelve years her senior who happened to go insane and
intentionally chose to spend most of her life in France, she was an
influential taste-maker, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt, and somewhat
embarrassed by boozehound F. Scott Fitzgerald’s social awkwardness.
According to Wikipedia, she was damn prolific, and I’m even
willing to admit that I read (most of) The Age of Innocence and I
really liked it. But her novel Ethan Frome almost ruined me on American

I was a sophomore in high school when Frome was assigned.
We’d just read A Catcher in the Rye, which might have been the first
school book that I’d actually read, and I was still wired from the
energy and vitality of Salinger’s language.To quote Tracy Morgan in “30
Rock”, I liked A Catcher in the Rye so much, I wanted to (figuratively
speaking) take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant.
Literature, I thought, (but of course never said aloud for fear of
social ostracizing) wasn’t boring. Literature was the sh*t. Eat it,
Natural Sciences.

And then came along Ethan and Zeena and Mattie and Starkfield, MA. Now to be fair, I can say now that I understand
what Wharton was doing in the book. I get that it was some sort of
commentary on a life unfulfilled, on the human ability to endure, and
the longing to be free. I get that it’s pretty damn similar to what she
had going on in her own life at the time, and her therapist encouraged
her to write about her problems. But just because I’ve taken a bunch of
MFA courses, which have enabled me to separate things I get from things I don’t get, doesn’t mean that I have to like it. And I, friends, do not like Ethan Frome. Aggressively.

a 15-16 year old kid (even as highly sophisticated as I imagine myself
to have been), the book was the ultimate tease. I kept waiting for
Ethan to make a move. Make any move. Kill Zeena. Tongue kiss Mattie.
Learn to do the foxtrot. Invent the Internet. Anything. But Ethan
couldn’t ever pull the trigger. Speaking of which, if I was trying to
commit some sort of symbolic suicidal act that would forever link me to
my unrequited lover, sledding down a hill into a big tree wouldn’t even
be in my top 10. (#6: Hang glide into Plymouth Rock while both
dressed in period garb)
Finishing the book didn’t even make me feel satisfied, it just made me
want to sit on my lime green beanbag chair and listen to
the Reality Bites soundtrack on repeat.  Psychology books might
describe this as “not awesome”.

Although I usually have a soft spot for the books I didn’t
understand in high school, I haven’t read Ethan Frome since. In fact, I
saw it in the bookstore yesterday and I could barely look at the title.
It fills me with a deep, hollow sadness, much like witnessing Britney
Spears’ performance at the VMA’s.

And Wharton–despite her prodigious talents and the fact that
she unironically named her estate in Lenox, MA, “The Mount”– will
forever remain the woman who took away my appreciation for American
Literature in high school and gave it to Matt Brady (Class of 99, WHS),
who somehow managed to get an A on the paper even though he didn’t run
spell check.

Join me on my next ‘review of books I was forced to read in
high school’ when I tell you 3 things you already knew about Great
. And feel free to share your own worst book high school
experiences, or nominate books you’d like to see reviewed. Don’t be
ashamed, just think of my blog as a nest in a tree of trust and

Check Up On It,


PS- Pictured below: The author, posing for the cover of the 1910 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: Literary Ladies Edition and an approximation of Ethan and Mattie post unsuccessful sled suicide. Ouch.

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14 thoughts on “Reviews of Books I Was Forced To Read in High School, Part 1: Ethan Frome

  1. Leah

    I know this blog entry is oh, so old, but at least I can now say that Silas Marner is a boring piece of crap written by a woman who didn’t know much about kids, and that I have never read anything by Dickens or Lewis Carroll that I liked. Overrated. So there.

    Leah (another one) ’85

  2. Leah

    I read this book in HS and I thought it was awful.

    The only book my entire class "enjoyed" reading (and that we were forbidden to let any other members of the student body see under penalty of expulsion), was Breakfast of Champions (mostly for three specific words and a certain drawing).

  3. Elizabeth

    It’s always puzzled me that teachers make every high schooler read Romeo & Juliet, going on and on about the tragic romance of it all, and then are all horrified and shocked when their students kill themselves.

    P.S. Kevin, I actually laughed more at this than I have at your stuff for a while. Not that you weren’t always funny, but this was particularly great.

  4. Nathan Perror (Horror_Writer)

    I was forced to read "Call of the Wild" in 7th grade, now I’m being forced to read "The Red Badge of Courage". I’m STILL waiting to read some Lovecraft in English. My English teacher doesn’t have a clue who the heck he is. How can you be an English teacher and not know who Lovecraft is?

  5. Kevin Alexander

    Ladies, Gentlemen, Various assorted high school classes:
    As we are Writer’s Digest, we have decided to slightly alter the blog to focus more on the writing world and less on the pop culture vehicle that is Internet 2.0… this means, I’m afraid, that Youtube 80s videos are out for the most part but it does not mean that the blog cannot still be somewhat humorous, random, scattered and off topic. If you were only reading the blog to see which 80s videos i was going to post, then I guess that sucks for me. But fear not, I can still be so, so, SO hilarious even without pictures of Sgt. Slaughter and clips from 30 Rock. I think. I mean, I hope so. Sh*t. Maybe I can’t…

  6. Trina

    Class of ’02 – those darned Writers Digest people are sucking the sarcasm right out of our man!!! He has SOLD OUT for whatever they are promising him! (Money? Women? A highlight in their weekly newsletter????!!!)
    Seriously though, I thought the review was quite funny. Just not TERRIBLY funny (which begs the question, why do we want funny to be terrible?.) But then again, how can you be terribly funny with a book like Ethan Frome? Thanks for the review, I firmly believe that some of the people who label books "classics" are on crack 24/7.

  7. Class of '86

    I read Ethan Frome in 10th grade, too. I didn’t like it particularly, but my English teacher, Mr. Chamberlain, was a brilliant man who tied our year’s literary studies together by first introducing us to Carl Jung’s archetypes, showing us how they related to psychology and also to literature. Every single paper we wrote for his class had to include an analysis of the book in question based on Jung’s archetypes. So, for example, we’d read Ethan Frome, and we’d have to come up with some angle such as, "How is Mattie an example of the Shadow [or whatever] while Zeena is the [whatever other archetype]?" Somehow the thought process involved in doing this kind of analysis forced me to get beyond whether or not I liked a book and concentrate instead on how the book reflected the "collective unconscious" of humanity — deep indeed!!! An amazing experience for a 10th grader. Thank you, Mr. Chamberlain.

  8. Genevieve Cancienne

    One of the books I suffered with most in high school was (Hemingway fans don’t hate me – wait, no, you’ll just have to hate me) A Farwell to Arms. Everyone in that book was a complete tool. It’s not that it was written poorly it’s just that I spent the whole time thinking, "I really don’t care what happens to these people. It’s a war. Can’t ANY of them die?" And then the hot nurse love interest dies in labor at the end of the book, and for a female reader that’s just an unnecessary creepy dose of reality. I’ve never read Ethan Frome, but it sounds like there would be great suffering involved.


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