06 January 2010

Book Review: The Three Big Whartons

Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence

When The Classics Circuit first announced Edith Wharton was coming on a tour, I was thrilled.  I've had Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth on my shelves for years...years people.  Originally I signed up to read all three of my books, but unfortunately, I ended up reading only two.

Ethan Frome

Buy  |  Borrow  |  Accept  |  Avoid

An unnamed narrator becomes intrigued by Ethan and the story of his tragic life after seeing him in a Massachusetts town.  When Ethan becomes the narrator's ride, said narrator begins to piece together the sordid tale of Ethan, his wife, and his love interest.

Other stops on the tour for Ethan Frome: A Striped Armchair; Reviews by Lola; Reading, Writing, Working, Playing; It's All About Books

Other Reviews:  Trish's Reading Nook; Caribousmom; Educating Petunia; Tammy's Book Nook;

Age of Innocence

Buy  |  Borrow  |  Accept  |  Avoid

Newland Archer, a proper dilettante and aficionado of protocol, finds his socially perfect life thrown into turmoil when the Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after fleeing her husband. Engaged to Ellen's cousin May, Newland quickly becomes enamored of the Countess and entertains thoughts of defying convention and running off with her. Ellen and May are opposites.  Where May is the product of her environment, demure and thoughtless, Ellen is outrageous in her individuality, a deviant in New York's upper class society.

Other stops on the tour for Age of Innocence:  Farm Lane Books; Kay's Bookshelf; Just Add Books; Pining for the West;

Other Reviews: book-a-rama; Educating Petunia; Books and Movies; Rebecca Reads; Trish's Reading Nook;

My Thoughts

Hands down, no question about it, Ethan Frome kicks Newland Archer's patootie. I really can't fully explain how much more I enjoyed EF over AoE.  EF contains relatable and sympathetic characters, interesting plot twists, and an unusual point of view; AoE, on the other hand, well, does not.

Both books are about husbands, unhappy in their marriage, falling in love with another woman. I felt, however, entirely different about the two situations - and with reason. Reason number 1:  When Ethan falls in love, he is already married; Newland, however, is single when his infatuation begins, but instead of calling off his engagement and pursuing his love, he marries and laments his position, to the point of actually wishing his wife dead at one point.  Reason number 2:  Ethan's wife is a hypochondriac, a too-much-money-spending nag, and all around bitchy; Newland's wife May is innocent and pathetic.  Reason number 3:  There is actually forward movement in Ethan Frome, which is sadly lacking in Age of Innocence.

Our two main characters, Ethan and Newland, may share a commonality in their complex love lives, but the similarities ended there for me.  Ethan is poignantly heartbreaking, truly tortured.  Already married and dedicated to caring for those he has responsibility, Ethan's dilemma seemed more sincere than Newland's, whose entire problem is his own inability to act. The culmination of events for each of our main characters is also wildly different with Ethan's final life a shocking result of passion and Newland's a meager display of his continuous inaction.

So now I've read two Wharton novels, one I loved and one I'm entirely lukewarm about.  I guess I will have to read House of Mirth to break the tie.


  1. I enjoyed Age of Innocence when I read it two years ago. But I'm reading Ethan Frome for a book group in a fwe months so I'm delighted to hear how much you enjoyed it over the other! Considering I liked AofI, I think I'm going to love Ethan Frome!

    Thanks so much for joining hte Circuit with this great review.

  2. OK, you've convinced me to try Ethan Frome. I commented on Jackie's blog (Farm Lane Books) that EF is frequently assigned to high school English classes (but not mine), and almost universally loathed by that age group. Being decidedly older and presumably wiser, I shouldn't let that influence me but it has. You've opened my mind to dear Ethan ... thanks!

  3. I've not liked anythign I've read of hers so far. :(

  4. I agree with Laura, I honestly don't see how a high school student could appreciate Ethan Frome -- I'm pretty sure they just assign it because it's short. I'm really glad I waited and read it as an adult, and it's now one of my favorites. I found the story riveting. I think House of Mirth is equally compelling.

  5. I loved both of these, but AOI won out for me, but by a small margin. I thoroughly enjoyed House of Mirth, too. :)

  6. I enjoyed your comparison of these 2 novels. I enjoyed Age of Innocence MUCH more than Ethan Frome, but I think it's just because I read EF at the wrong time in my life. It was required reading in 11th grade. I guess I wasn't ready for Edith Wharton when I was 16. :-) I read AOI in my early 30's and found it delightful.

  7. I totally agree with you. I'd definitely recommend Ethan Frome over Age of Innocence.

  8. Rebecca - I hope you like EF. It took a bit to get in to, but what a great story.

    Laura - I think EF would be a horrible choice for a high school class; age and experience in responsibility and love are definite aids in this reading experience.

    Amanda - Oooh, that stinks. And here I am at 50-50, wondering if I'll read House of Mirth...

    Karen - I agree. You need to really understand responsibility for others to appreciate EF.

    Carrie K. - I'm glad to hear you like House of Mirth; I'm still considering reading it.

    Stephanie - You should try EF again; as I've told others, I think you have to really understand responsibility for others to appreciate EF.

    Chris - For awhile there I thought I was the only one who liked EF more than AoI!


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