Critics have called Ethan Frome the most carefully constructed of Edith Wharton's novels, and have praised the economy of its language and its intensity. The novel is a naturalistic—that is, unsentimental—portrait of emotional frigidity set in the New England winter. Young Mattie Silver arrives in the mountain village of Starkfield to help with housekeeping for her cousin Zeena, the sickly, cantankerous wife of Ethan Frome. Ethan, who has long been resigned to the care of his ailing wife and farm, is drawn to Mattie's youthful beauty and good humor. When Zeena realizes their mutual attraction, she arranges to engage a less attractive companion and to have Mattie sent away. Unable to bear the idea of parting, the lovers attempt to kill themselves by sledding into a tree. The attempt is a failure, and it leaves Mattie and Ethan crippled for life and condemned to Zeena's care. Early reviewers praised Wharton's style but were dismayed by the novel's bleakness and the inability of her characters to find a way out of their situation. Later critics were even harsher in their evaluations, citing numerous inconsistencies and debating whether Ethan Frome himself is truly tragic or simply morally inert. All the same, this study in frustration, loneliness, and moral responsibility became a popular favorite, somewhat to the surprise of its author, and is frequently taught at the high school and college level.