For book groups that enjoy revisiting classic literature, Edith Wharton makes for a great—if admittedly depressing—pick. The American author of "The Age of Innocence," "The House of Mirth," and "Ethan Frome" (among others) was a brilliant prose stylist who excels at revealing character through spare but pointedly crafted details and gestures, dialogue and scene.
Last week, I read her novel "Ethan Frome," a story of repressed passion and its ensuing tragedy (this isn't really a spoiler because ... Edith Wharton).
The eponymous Ethan Frome falls for his sickly wife's pretty young cousin, the orphaned and displaced Mattie, who hails from Stamford, Conn. Mattie moves into the couple's Massachusetts home to help care for Ethan's wife, Zeena, whose pastimes include curling up by the fire to read books about the digestive system, traveling around Massachusetts to visit medical specialists, leveling acidic barbs at Ethan and Mattie, and plotting to make everyone around her as miserable as she is.
During a bleak New England winter in the town of Starkfield (named with Dickensian flair, yes?) that provides copious opportunities to reflect mood through descriptions of the weather, Ethan and Mattie's mutual attraction grows, like a plant in a too-small pot. With nowhere to go and no hope of being consummated, their love implodes. The ending is ironic tragedy times a million billions.
The novel is ripe for discussion—about morality in turn of the (20th) century America, about the nature of tragedy, about literary flair, and about that darn ending. Also, her characters are just plain fun to dish about.
And speaking of "dish," if you're wondering what to serve alongside despair, I recommend something sweet, specifically doughnuts, which make several appearances on the Frome dining table.
In one poignant domestic scene, which will repeat later in the novel but under very different circumstances, Ethan and Mattie share a meal alone together when Zeena is away visiting a doctor:
"[Mattie] stood aside, smiling silently, while he entered, and then moved away from him with something soft and flowing in her gait. She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass. A bright fire glowed in the stove, and the cat lay stretched before it, watching the table with a drowsy eye.
Ethan was suffocated with a sense of well-being."
A few years ago at an antique fair, I discovered a book called "The New England Economical Housekeeper" dating to 1847 that included five different recipes for doughnuts. The year predates Wharton's book by about six decades but is still telling. New Englanders consumed their fair share of doughnuts (and this New Englander still does!).
Here is the first of the recipes:
"Two eggs, one cup of sugar, half a pint of sour milk, a little saleratus; salt and spice to your taste; a small piece of butter or cream is better, if you have it; mix the articles together one hour before you fry the cakes; mould with flour."
If this is a bit too, shall we say, unstructured, you can find a whole batch of vintage doughnut recipes by clicking here to visit "Homemade Dessert Recipes" online.
Or you could just run down to your favorite doughnut shop. Mine is Coffee An' Donuts (343 Main St. in Westport). Get there early, and they'll still be warm from the oven. Where is your favorite spot for great do(ugh)nuts?