ZEENA by Elizabeth Cooke


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 Recent fiction, enamored with the endless possibilities of second servings, offers another in the genre: a new take on Edith Wharton's classic Ethan Frome. Wharton's original tells the tragic tale of Ethan, trapped in a loveless marriage to the icy, hardened Zeena. A distant cousin, sent to his isolated farmhouse to nurse his dying mother, she married Ethan when his desperation at spending another winter alone overcame him. He falls in love with the carefree Mattie Silver, though as their love can never blossom, they opt for a double suicide, botch the job and spend the next 20 years crippled, nursed by an unforgiving Zeena. In Cooke's (Complicity, 1988) revision, the tale is told from Zeena's perspective, subtly challenging the specter of Wharton's vision of her as a malevolent jailer. The novel takes as its focus the time before Ethan and Zeena were married. Here, Zeena desires to do good, and to escape the provincial trappings of spinsterhood by moving to the big city. She tends to her cousin Beatrice, though Ethan seems to think she's there to cook and clean. After days of constant care and the drudgery of domestic work, described at times in ponderous and repetitive detail, Zeena finds that she's come too late to save the woman. Shortly after his mother's death, Ethan proposes, and Zeena accepts in a haze of sexual longing, emboldened by the notion that she and Ethan may make a fresh start elsewhere by springtime. But that springtime never comes. Zeena's heart turns to ice as she learns only months after her marriage that Ethan boldly loves another woman, foreshadowing and making more poignant the tragic events of the original. A successful and inventive view of Wharton's character, transcending the shrew of the original. But this version gains much of its resonance from a knowledge of that original text, and those unfamiliar with Ethan Frome may find the few months described in the novel to be as long as a New England winter.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 1996
ISBN: 0-312-14775-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1996