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Ethan Frome, Summer, & The Bunner Sisters (thoughts)

January 12, 2010

I’m delighted to welcome Edith Wharton’s Classics Circuit tour to my blog today. I first discovered Wharton in high school, when I saw House of Mirth at the library one day and decided to read it. On the one hand, I loved the novel for its writing and its sharp character profiles. On the other, I was shocked by Wharton’s seemingly relentless desire to destroy her characters’ lives. Compared to my Jane, Wharton seemed a whole different kind of female author. This had me intrigued, but it took me a couple more years to read The Age of Innocence, in which I found the same marvelous writing and the same pessimistic views. Since then, I’ve read some of her short stories, which I think are much ‘lighter’ than her novels, and that I’d highly recommend (especially “Roman Fever”), and then last year I picked up The Reef, one of her longer works. I’m not sure if I’ve developed a thicker reading skin, or if I simply went into it with an expectation of a depressing ending, but I really enjoyed it and decided to read more Wharton soon! So I was delighted when Wharton won the American authors poll on the Classics Circuit. I can’t actually remember why I decided to read this Everyman collection of three novellas, but it turns out “Ethan Frome” is one of her most famous works, so I’m glad that I did. I was probably curious about her novellas, since her short stories have such a different flavour from her novels.

I went into each of the novellas not having any idea what they were about, which I think made the discovery that much more interesting. I was actually quite surprised; whereas every other Wharton writing I’ve read focuses on ‘high society’ or those on the fringe of that, all three of these novellas center around poor characters. In both “Summer” and “The Bunner Sisters” there are a few hints of the more exalted circles, but if this had been my first experience with Wharton, I’d have had no hint of her privileged background. I loved getting to know this new side of her. And I should tell you now: “Ethan Frome” was my favourite of the three, and a beautiful story I think anyone should read, so if you’d prefer to skip the rest of this post so you don’t get more details about the stories, just put it on your TBR list. And it’s a very winter-y story, for those who enjoy seasonally appropriate reading!

There are several other bloggers planning to read “Ethan Frome” and “Summer,” so first I’d like to discuss “The Bunner Sisters.” It was the last of the three novellas, and the only one set in New York City. It seemed to have a rather familiar plot….two sisters (the older self-sacrificing, the younger prettier and whiny), get on in age, run a small shop that barely makes ends meet and lead a quiet, dull existence, but their lives are changed when they meet a middle-aged German immigrant who begins visiting them regularly. And for the first half, it unfolded exactly as I would have expected. But then Wharton seemed to turn on a dime, and made me think about which sister was ‘luckier’. I was also surprised to see (and this is a spoiler…I’ll start a new paragraph once I finish the spoiler, so avert your eyes now if you’d like) drug addiction come up. I can’t recall reading a classic novel that deals with that before, and while Wharton depends more on second- and third-hand accounts of its effects, I thought it was fascinating.

I found the strongest part of the novella to be how Wharton showed the deadening effects of poverty. The sisters have to be so economic that even having friends over to dinner only happens 2-3 times a year, which is more heartbreaking the more that I think about it. We don’t find out much about their background, but their gentility implies to me that their parents had probably come down in the world. Anyway, they’re so focused on making sure the shop makes enough money for them to survive, that they haven’t had a chance to live. I found this passage, early in the novella, to be especially poingant:

The infrequency of [Ann Eliza’s] walks made them the chief events of her life. The mere act of going out from the monastic quiet of the shop into the tumult of the streets filled her with a subdued excitement which grew to intense for pleasure as she was swallowed by the engulfing roar of Broadway or Third Avenue, and began to do timid battle with their incessant cross-currents of humanity. After a glance or two into the great show-windows she usually allowed herself to be swept back into the shelter of a side-street, and finally regained her own roof in a state of breathless bewilderment and fatigue; but gradually, as her nerves were soothed by the familiar quiet of the little shop, and the click of Evelina’s pinking-machine, certain sights and sounds would detach themselves from the torrent along which she had been swept, and she would devote the rest of the day to a mental reconstruction of the different episodes of her walk, till finally it took shape in her thought as a consecutive and highly-coloured experience, from which, for weeks afterwards, she would detach some fragmentary recollection in the course of her long dialogues with her sister.

That being said, while “The Bunner Sisters” was worth reading, Wharton’s usual talent at bringing characters alive was missing. Most of the characters remained thin, and I couldn’t find myself mustering up much sympathy for them or much worry about their fates. This struck me as the weakest of the three.

“Summer” was another surprise for me, with its frank depiction of sexuality (as just one example, there’s several references to an abortion clinic), it felt like a more modern piece. This time, Wharton takes her time establishing the main character, Charity Royall, and because of that I was much more involved. She also managed to subvert my expectations for the ending, which I always appreciate in a book! A few pages into the novella, I had to laugh. Because Charity is a librarian who resents the books around her! This is because she can’t read, and her upbringing has made me resentful of most things, but it really took me aback for a few moments. Fortunately, I soon began to sympathise with Charity despite her attitude towards the library…especially once I found out that she’d been adopted as a baby from a rough-living ‘Mountain’ community and raised in (comparative) civilisation by the Royalls, who named her Charity to keep her humble. How mean is that? So, Charity lives in small-town New England, and is bored with/despises the townfolk. Eighteen, restless, and very pretty…need I even tell you what happens when a young man, well-off and cosmopolitan arrives? I think this would be a perfect choice for Women Unbound, and a great companion read to “The Awakening” (which I want to go read now, actually). Wharton’s depiction of Charity is ripe with feminist ideas, her portrayal of the depressing lack of options facing women then made me happy to live in the 21st century, and all in all I wished I had a book club to discuss this one with.

As I mentioned earlier, “Ethan Frome” was by far my favourite of the three. I wish the edition had put it last instead of first, because it was so perfect that it cast a pall on the two followings novellas. Wharton’s at the top of her game her, and the writing and characters and Greek tragedy of a plot (the reader knows the ending from the beginning, since it’s set up in a story-within-a-story frame) combine in this jewel of a novella. It centers around three people living on a poor, small farm in the New England countryside: Ethan, in his late twenties, who had dreams of going to college and making something of himself before life seemed to thwart him, his wife Zee, who is ill and frustrated that her younger husband hasn’t achieved more, and Mattie, an orphaned cousin of Zee’s who comes to live with them as an unpaid serving girl and still sees joy in life, despite the precariousness of her own situation. Things come to a head during the long New England winter, when the small farmhouse throws them all together more than is probably good. I love the Greek tragedy approach to shorter works, and I think in this novella Wharton achieves the hints, the inevitability of it all, perfectly. The writing is very visual: I could see every scene in my head as I was reading. I often find it most difficult to talk about books that I truly loved, but I urge you to read “Ethan Frome” if this sounds at all interesting to you. It is my new fvaourite Wharton, and one that I hope to reread for many winters to come.

58 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2010 10:49 am

    I recently read The Touchstone and didn’t love it. I’ll have to give Ethan Frome a try sometime.

    • January 13, 2010 10:40 am

      I haven’t read The Touchstone, but maybe it was one of her lesser works?

  2. January 12, 2010 11:22 am

    I am surprised by the modern aspects within the stories. You don’t imagine abortion or drugs to have been wide spread during the writer’s life time.

    Amanda over at The Zen Leaf recommend Ethan Frome, so I have added it to my list. I like the idea of being able to get all three novellas in one, as The Bunner Sisters really appeals to me.

    • January 13, 2010 10:41 am

      I know-I found those aspects fascinating! This edition is nice, but the introduction by Hermione Lee disappointed me. I knew that Lee wrote a biography of her (and I loved Lee’s bio of Woolf), but she doesn’t talk about Wharton’s life at all, just analyses the texts. And the analysis felt a bit half-hearted. :/

  3. January 12, 2010 11:49 am

    Ethan Frome is the only Wharton I’ve ever read. Required reading in high school. It’s one of the few assigned books from those days that I don’t have a strong feeling of “love” or “hate” for. I honestly don’t even remember it that well, except for its “ending.” I’ve really never had any desire to reread it, but well…you’re sort of making me want to now.

    • January 13, 2010 10:42 am

      You know, thinking back to it, I felt ‘meh’ about pretty much all of my assigned reading. The teachers were so busy wringing out every piece of symbolism, there wasn’t any space for the books to just breathe!

  4. January 12, 2010 12:50 pm

    I expected you’d love Summer. I did actually include it as a book for my Unbound challenge. It was full of the hard place women were in at the time. It didn’t feel as modern to me as it seemed to to you, though. And I LOVE The Awakening. One of my favorite books ever. Have you read it?

    • January 13, 2010 10:43 am

      We talked about this on Twitter, hehe, but I haven’t read The Awakening yet and really want to. Soon!

  5. January 12, 2010 1:06 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Ethan Frome — as that’s my book club selection for March. The others sound good too, and I’m intrigued by your description of Summer as perfect for the woman unbound challenge!

    • January 13, 2010 10:44 am

      I think it’ll be a great book club book! :)

  6. January 12, 2010 1:26 pm

    Ethan Frome is such a perfect book, even though it’s so tragic. And I love the dramatic irony of her stories — Roman Fever is my favorite also, but if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend “Xingu,” which is just hilarious. There’s a great audio version from the Selected Shorts program on NPR. It’s worth looking for.

    • January 13, 2010 10:44 am

      I have read “Xingu”-it’s my second favourite short story of hers. And I love how it shows off her lighter side. :D

  7. January 12, 2010 2:25 pm

    I haven’t read the others, but I do like Ethan Frome. You just keep hoping things will work out even though you know they won’t.

    • January 13, 2010 10:45 am

      I know! That always happens to me w/ Wharton. :)

  8. January 12, 2010 2:32 pm

    I have never given Wharton a try mainly for the traits you ascribe to her in your first paragraph- she seems really depressing. I don’t think I can read her so soon after The Bone People, but I’ll keep her in mind for later when I, er, need a downer ;-)

    • January 13, 2010 10:46 am

      Well…she’s depressing in a wonderful way. Does that make sense? And after your review, I’m TOTALLY reading The Bone People for the Booker Challenge. :)

  9. January 12, 2010 2:55 pm

    Yeah, Wharton does some harsh stuff to her characters but since I know this going in I don’t get too attached. Her writing is beautiful though.

    I’m reviewing The Custom of the Country tomorrow & if you haven’t read it yet, you really should! I enjoyed it a lot.

    • January 13, 2010 10:47 am

      I agree-I think her writing is so beautiful! And I keep myself more distant from her characters than I would with different authors. I’ll read Custom of the Country for my next Wharton-thanks for the rec! :)

  10. January 12, 2010 3:29 pm

    I recently read Ethan Frome, too – and loved it as much as you did. Age of Innocence is still my favorite, though. I still have a lot of Wharton to read, since I’ve only read those two and House of Mirth.

    • January 13, 2010 10:48 am

      You know, I think part of why EF displaced AoI is that I’ve read it more recently! lol All of the AoI love in these comments has left me craving a reread. :)

  11. January 12, 2010 4:13 pm

    Ethan Frome is one of those novellas I’ve long meant to read, but somehow I never get around to it. I feel so behind! Most of the high school students in North Carolina read it as juniors, and I still haven’t done it. Can’t wait to get my hands on it now!

    • January 13, 2010 10:50 am

      I think reading it in high school would’ve killed it for me. ;) But I totally get feeling behind-most of my friends read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, so when I read it last year, I felt like I was playing catch-up!

  12. January 12, 2010 4:51 pm

    Oh you make me want to go pick up a Wharton novel. I really should given that I’ve only read one, Glimpses of the Moon, which I really liked actually.

    • January 13, 2010 10:50 am

      I haven’t read Glimpses of the Moon, but I love that title! :)

  13. January 12, 2010 5:28 pm

    I think Ethan Frome is the only short fiction by Wharton that I’ve read (and I actually listened to it on audio). I liked it a lot more than I expected to, given the premise, which sounded excessively annoying. But Custom of the Country, which Jenny and I read for the Circuit, is my favorite Wharton. I’ll have to look out for the other novellas you mention too. They sound great!

    • January 13, 2010 10:51 am

      lol @ ‘excessively annoying’! I’m a total sucker for doomed-from-the-start stories. ;) You should read some of her short stories-they’re free online & a fun way to see different sides of her.

  14. January 12, 2010 6:48 pm

    I read Ethan Frome first and then moved on to the Age of Innocence — you’re right, there really is quite a difference! I think I might have liked Age of Innocence better at the time, but your review made me want to pick up a copy of Summer when I get a chance.

    • January 13, 2010 10:52 am

      As I mentioned up above, I think EF might be my fave because it’s the most recent I’ve read. :)

  15. January 12, 2010 8:00 pm

    Isn’t it interesting that Wharton wrote so much about the non-upper-classes in some of her shorter works? I had never really thought about that before.

    I read Ethan From a long time ago–I remembered liking it, but not really what it was about. I think I liked AoI better by the time I read that, but I should Ethan From another try.

    Summer sounds great! I happen to have the Bunner Sisters in a collection I already have; maybe I will try that even though you weren’t thrilled it. This circuit has really put me in a Wharton mood.

    • January 13, 2010 10:53 am

      It is interesting! I think The Bunner Sisters was good, a solid piece, but compared to Ethan Frome and Summer, it suffered a bit. Still well worth reading! :)

  16. January 12, 2010 8:18 pm

    Wow. What you say is very much not how I’ve always thought of Edith Wharton, but it makes me want to try her. I think my sister read and loved one of her books, Age of Innocence maybe? and I just haven’t gotten around to her yet.

  17. January 12, 2010 8:18 pm

    I loved Ethan Frome the first time I read it at least a decade or so ago! I remember not expecting that ending of the story actually :) Which made me reread it right after the first reading. Truly, truly a masterful storytelling!

    Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten around to other Wharton stories after that :(

    • January 13, 2010 11:16 am

      She is SUCH a storyteller! It makes me forgive her for all the sad endings. ;)

  18. January 12, 2010 8:30 pm

    Ethan From is the only of the novellas I’ve read and I loved it. Summer is waiting on my shelf, but my favorite Wharton (so far) is The Custom of the Country.

    • January 13, 2010 11:16 am

      You’re the third commenter to recommend Custom! I know which Wharton I’ll be picking up next! :)

  19. January 12, 2010 8:47 pm

    I really need to read EF; I’ve been scared away from it by my high school-aged daughter, who hated it. Silly me. It’s also interesting to read about the other two works, which I hadn’t heard of before! Great post.

    • January 13, 2010 11:17 am

      I think I would’ve hated it in high school, or at least not loved it. So definitely give it a try! :)

  20. January 13, 2010 3:47 am

    I love Edith Wharton; I discovered her in high school too (at the recommendation of one of my teachers) but I was all for tragedy and unhappy endings as a teen so she and I got on very well. And we still do! Age of Innocence is my favorite, but I also loved Ethan Frome. I haven’t read the other two you mention here, but I do have a collection of her short stories across the pond at home, so I’ll have to haul that back here next time. =) I’m reading Custom of the Country for the circuit but I haven’t started yet!

    • January 13, 2010 11:17 am

      I love her too! I guess that didn’t come through as well in my post as it should have. I was tired when I was writing this, lol.

  21. January 13, 2010 7:33 am

    I remember being shocked by The House of Mirth as well…I exclaimed all kinds of 4 letter things aloud, unbelieving at Lily Bart’s unrelenting downward spiral.

    I’ve had Wharton on my mind lately. I have a couple of novels by her on the TBR. I’m ashamed I’ve made them wait.

    • January 13, 2010 11:18 am

      I know! It just keeps getting worse! I was all like, wait a minute! This isn’t what I signed up for! lol But I do love Wharton’s style. :)

  22. January 13, 2010 10:02 am

    love, love, LOVE Edith Wharton!

    • January 13, 2010 11:19 am

      Have you read Hermione Lee’s bio of her? I loved Lee’s bio of Woolf, so I’ve been really curious about it.

  23. January 13, 2010 10:05 am

    Of the three novellas you mention here, the only one I’ve read (a long time ago) was Ethan Frome. The storyline was memorable enough for me to remember some of the details, rather than completely forgetting what it was about.

    I have several Edith Whartons but a few I still haven’t read (just read one of them for my tour stop coming up) and this Classic Circuit tour is making me want to re-visist her again –not all at once, but maybe now and then through the year!

    • January 13, 2010 11:19 am

      That’s what I love about the Classics Circuit-it makes me want to dive back into so many wonderful authors. :)

  24. January 13, 2010 9:02 pm

    Wharton has long been a favorite of mine, and while I find her novels to be amazing, I still love Ethan Frome most of all. I reread it almost every year and I still find it just as moving as I did the first time.

    I enjoyed your reviews! (as always)

    • January 16, 2010 6:12 pm

      Thanks Allie! Wharton is such a wonderful author, isn’t she? :)

  25. Juanita permalink
    January 14, 2010 12:06 am

    I had to read Ethan Frome in high school. The teacher spent so much time talking about one line, “It was always Ethan done the caring,” that I totally lost interest. You’ve convinced me to give it another shot.

    • January 16, 2010 6:12 pm

      I feel like all the books I had to read for high school were ruined for me by teachers dwelling too much on symbolism!

  26. January 14, 2010 3:34 pm

    Ethan Frome is a beautiful novella and the only stand-out Wharton read that I’ve had so far (although I think that’s one of two! The other being The Age of Innocence). “Roman Fever” was a fabulous short story and was featured in the Persephone biannually before last.

    • January 16, 2010 6:13 pm

      And my love for Persephone grows even more. ;)


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