So, some unnamed-as-far-as-I-can-remember narrator is in Starkfield for a limited amount of time and becomes super-interested (read: nosy) in Ethan Frome, a local guy who has been crippled by some accident and the narrator must know more! So Ethan ends up driving him to the train to get to work but it snows and he can't make it home so he spends the night at Ethan's house where he learns all about Ethan and fulfills his voyeuristic needs. It's your classic story-within-a-story claptrap, and I could really do without it.
So really there's poor, sad, put-upon Ethan, who's in love with his wife's cousin, Mattie, whose parents died and left her with nothing, so she's staying with Ethan and Zeena and is supposed to do all the housework because Zeena is a catty hypochondriac who Ethan only married because she nursed his hypochondriac mother in her last days. Mattie's terrible at housework, so Ethan does most of it for her, and Zeena is PISSED, so she goes to a fake doctor who prescribes a servant girl (because that's a remedy, apparently) and so Mattie MUST go because they don't have an extra room (except they do, but Zeena is a bitch, don't you see?). And Ethan and Mattie are overcome because they love each other so much and Ethan contemplates running away with her and leaving Zeena all alone (with his land and money) but then he couldn't support poor penniless Mattie (who will be penniless either way, so why not be penniless together?). And then there is a sledding accident, which is what cripples Ethan.
Overall, it's pretty flowery and underwhelming, and the whole time I was like "let's have some of Zeena's perspective" because as much as it sucks to be denied your true love and stuck with a cranky hypochondriac, it must also suck to feel all the ills and then watch the man who's supposed to take care of you fall in love with a younger, fresher version. But Zeena is presented as all bad and I do not like that. I do like that everybody gets their comeuppance in the end (except the nosy narrator).
One bit that I did love, from the sledding scene:
"Get up! Get up!" he urged her; but she kept on repeating: "Why do you want to sit in front?"All along, Ethan has taken care of his wife and cousin and lands and everything - he is the provider. This is the only indication that he needs to be taken care of too, and the image of this large man being held and comforted by the woman he loves - showing his own weakness and neediness - is heartbreaking, especially considering what comes next. It made the book for me.
"Because I - because I want to feel you holding me," he stammered, and dragged her to her feet."
... She waited while he seated himself with crossed legs in the front of the sled; the she crouched quickly down at his back and clasped her arms about him. (121)