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,
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
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
Expectations. 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.