Friday, March 26, 2010

Review - A Tale of Two Cities

Somehow I managed to get through Junior High, High School and even College (as an English major) without ever reading A Tale of Two Cities. Since I'm about to graduate, I figured it was time to read this classic and see what it's all about. I knew from a high level that it was about some of the dynamic between London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution, but not much beyond that.

I can honestly say that I wanted to give up a few times as I started. The famous opening lines were interesting ("It was the best of times it was the worst of times…"), but as the story went on, it was a balancing act. For the first 50 or 60 pages, I had to readjust myself to Dickens style. I had to try to care about a myriad of characters without knowing who was going to be important or what their importance would be. I was tossed around between a few locations and seemingly random stories. The writing was gorgeous, the characters were full and the situations were interesting, but the overall pacing of the story felt like it was crawling very slowly. I felt like I was turning page after page and gathering data that felt insignificant. I felt as though I had no clear understanding of the overall plot or the prospective arc of the story and thus I had no way of knowing how quickly (or if at all) I was progressing along that arc towards any type of intrigue, climax or conclusion.

Still, I loved the language and I was intrigued by the characters and wanted to find out how they would interact and where their paths would lead. So, I pushed through. As I passed into the 100+ page mark, I had a clearer idea of the relations of the characters and could start to guess at upcoming events. Halfway through the novel, the intensity really took off and for the last 150-200 pages, I had a hard time putting the book down because I was so invested in what was going on and truly NEEDED to know what was going to happen.

I felt that Dickens did a wonderful job creating vibrant characters that I could intimately invest myself in. I felt great compassion for Doctor Manette and Lucie. I had genuine concern for Charles. I literally shuddered as I got closer and closer to Madame Defarge. Even the peripheral characters and their more minor stories were engaging. I was worried about Cruncher and Miss Pross as they tried to escape Paris. It was interesting the way seemingly minor characters would wind in and out of the story taking on larger roles at times and even becoming highly pivotal characters.

In addition to the wonderful tension in the story and the amazingly vivid characters, I think one of the amazing aspects of this novel is the portrayal of the French Revolution itself. I'm not a historian by any stretch. My knowledge of the Revolution is largely limited to a brief history lesson in High School and reading and watching The Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Miserables. (I kept expecting the Pimpernel to swoop in and save the day…alas, he didn't)

So I have no idea how accurate Dickens portrayal is. But I did find that his descriptions of the buildup and eventual explosion of the Revolution is amazing. I loved that he showed some of the actions that led up to the hatred. As the book went on, the atrocities of the upper class became more and more heinous to the extent that I could relate and empathize with the Revolutionaries to some degree. But as the powder keg erupted into the absolute thirst for blood and vengeance, it became frightening how all-encompassing the hatred was. I really felt the sense of the flood that flowed through Paris and the absolute horror of the thing. While this is a work of fiction, I think this portrayal of the Revolution was absolutely amazing.

Now that I've finally read this novel, I feel really bad that it took me so long to get to it. I also feel like, now that I know the trajectory, the first ~50-100 pages would be more intriguing. I can truly understand why this book is considered a classic and is so open for discussions. It provides plenty of conversation about humanity and history. It also displays lots of intriguing literary techniques that are very cool.

I absolutely recommend that everyone makes time to read this book at least once in their life.

5 out of 5 stars

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logankstewart said...

I've never read this book, either, and I really never had a desire to until I read this review. I enjoy reading the Classics, so I may have to add this to my TBR pile, if only to discover if it holds up to its reputation.

Tales of Whimsy said...

I had to put it down. I was SO lost. I will definitely revisit it. I'm sure it's amazing. Maybe I just need to be in the right mind set.

Okie said...

I actually started into this one 2 or 3 years ago and got bored and put it down.

I'm not sure if I was "in a different place" this time or if I was just too stubborn to quit. I'm glad I pushed through even though the first ~1/4th felt tedious.