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If you’ve heard of Wharton, you probably recognize Ethan Frome, published in 1911 and still her best-known novel. The companion piece is not nearly as famous, but I can see why they belong together. Although not set in upper-crust New York like most of Wharton’s fiction, both short novels offer just as fascinating an insight into the young lover’s hot-blooded struggle against polite society. Presenting the stories in chronological order, this edition offers an equivalent to a whole House of Mirth or Age of Innocence. Just don’t read Elizabeth Strout’s introduction first, which gives everything away.Ethan’s story is touching in its simplicity. New England in winter, the biting frost, the colder marriage and crushing despair were all rendered beautifully in the 1993 movie starring Liam Neeson, superbly cast as the tragic hero. (Update: Hmm … I may have allowed to Hollywood dictate my interpretation of Ethan.) Reading Wharton’s crystalline sentences, the cinematic images replayed in my head, and every bit of foreshadowing stood out like black spruces in the snow, adding to the constant pang of knowing it can only end badly for everyone.By her own admission, though, the author grew tired of the novel’s acclaim – understandable considering she went on to produce a total of some 60 works, including poetry, short stories, essays on writing, and books on war, travel and architecture. Still, Ethan continues to appeal. Could it partly be that, no matter how poetically logical the ending, the hero’s characters’ plight feels like the reader can still do something about it? Maybe that’s the ultimate effect of the narrator, whom Wharton thought about a great deal before deciding he would tell Ethan’s story. The framing chapters emphasize how many years have gone by, but, as one critic has said, it also gets in the way of the plot events’ realness. We don’t so much have a visceral reaction as that “formal feeling” Emily Dickinson wrote about.Maybe it’s why, in 1917, Wharton gave Ethan a fellow sufferer in Charity Royall, the heroine of Summer. Everything Ethan was and did, Charity isn’t and will not – let’s just say her name belies her outlook. Yet she is every bit as trapped as he was, which makes her as compelling a character. Even her situation is as complicated as his was straightforward: she lives with Mr. Royall, the lawyer who “brought her down from the Mountain” when she was a little girl and his wife was still alive. She has his last name but isn’t his daughter; she had a chance to enroll in boarding school but declined because her widowed guardian would be lonely. Now 17, she hates everything, including her lonely widowed guardian.If Charity is Ethan’s counterpart and Mr. Royall is her Zeena, then the Mattie of Summer is Lucius Harney, a fervent young architect from the city. The novel is as brief, but the plot wends and turns more, like the landscape around its small-town setting. The characters, too, are more substantial, especially the ostensible antagonist. This creates an even more wretched conflict among them, even though the atmosphere is all sun-warmed pastures and autumnal sparkle. Summer gives us seasonal imagery at its best.Because I didn’t know anything about the novel, its ending surprised me and felt abrupt at first. But now that I think about it, Charity’s story not only complements Ethan’s but ultimately completes it. Reading both offers a thrilling study in contrasts and a rare glimpse of how an author continues to grow, sharpening her powers of perception and honing her craft.

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