Ethan Frome: The Shitty Version of It's a Wonderful Life (CBR: Preface)

Setting: Small New England town in winter. Check.
Protagonist: Ambitious, intelligent young man whose dreams of leaving said Small New England Town are consistently crushed by factors outside of his control. Check.
Nemesis: Cranky invalid who derives joy in causing the misery of others. Check.
Conclusion: Happy, life-affirming climax with Christmas trees, angels getting wings and exuberant outbursts of "Merry Christmas Movie House!" Erm...not so much.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is the story of George Bailey without the good-intentioned (though probably drunk) guardian angel. Instead of hooking up with a hot Donna Reed, finding Zuzu's petals and reveling in a cheerful Hollywood ending, Ethan limps through life with a restrained stoicism that echoes the bleak winter in his hometown of Starkfield (yeah, seriously), Massachusetts.

As a young man, Ethan's escape from his Starkfield farm is made impossible by his father's sudden death and the resulting illness of his mother. His cousin Zeena comes to live with him and deftly attends to her aunt so Ethan can attend to the failing farm. When his mother dies, Ethan proposes to his cousin (it's an old book) to hold back the oppressive loneliness of the Starkfield winter. They attempt to sell the farm to finance a move to a larger town, but there are no buyers and within a year Zeena becomes "sickly."

Ethan has resigned to dying miserable in Starkfield when Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin, comes to care for his ailing wife. Mattie is clearly an outsider. She smiles easily, has rosy cheeks and talks with exclamation points. She is a dramatic contrast to Zeena's grayish skin tone, flat whine and asthmatic breathing (Zeena also has false teeth and no boobs.)

Ethan, obviously, falls in love with Mattie, and much of the novella relates his sweetly awkward interactions with her. The lack of plot - or landscape - makes small moments incredibly powerful. When Ethan feels mocked by his family's gravestones or exalted at a brief touch from Mattie, you'll mourn or rejoice with him. When his modest house shivers in a winter storm, you'll swear someone just turned down the heat. So, in the end, when Mattie is to be sent away and Ethan realizes he doesn't have any means to keep her, you'll understand their fateful decision.

Unlike George Bailey, when Ethan attempts suicide there is no guardian angel to pull him out of the water, even though Ethan is arguably more worthy of heavenly intervention as he realized before he tried to kill himself that what he really wanted wasn't to escape Bedford Falls Starkfield, but to live a quiet, uneventful life with Mattie.

The result of Ethan's attempt (which I won't completely give away in case the book wasn't required reading in your crappy High School), is so hauntingly devastating it would give Shakespeare - or Joss Whedon - pause. The ending would easily piss me off in a contemporary best-seller (looking at you, Jodi Picoult), but it works here because Wharton isn't trying to make a book club of Botoxed suburbanites cry. She's saying that sometimes, if life keeps kicking you in the balls, maybe the prudent action is to stay down.

Also, that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. Or...not so much.

Cannonball Read starts November 1.