The Short Version: In the years leading up to the French Revolution, an old man named Manette is reunited with his estranged daughter many moons after having been imprisoned and forgotten about. He, with his daughter, returns to England under the auspices of a man named Lorry. As the daughter grows into a beautiful young woman, she meets and marries an dashing French emigre named Darnay. As it turns out, Darnay is more than an emigre: he’s an aristocrat. When he returns to Paris at the height of the Terror, their peaceful world is disrupted and only through the workings of their dearest friends does the story have a happy ending.
The Review: So begins Dickens2012! It’s so strange to me that this is the first time I can honestly say I’ve completed an entire unabridged Dickens novel. Dickens and Hemingway were strangely absent from my academic career. Also Faulkner and Joyce, for those keeping track. But no matter – this is Dickens’ year and by god I’m going to do him right.
So then: A Tale of Two Cities. A book that has the distinctive quality of having an oft-quoted opening sentence AND an oft-quoted closing one. We all know how the story begins – and as Carton heads to the knife, his immortal last thoughts begin with “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…” I mean, what beautiful and evocative prose. The lines are so cliched now that it is difficult to separate them from our present reality… but imagine reading that right when it was written! What I’m saying is: I drink the Dickens kool-aid.
At the same time, the man can be insufferable. While this book didn’t suffer from the bloat that characterizes certain other works (my only other attempt at a full Dickens was Our Mutual Friend my senior year of college. It will surprise no one to hear that I read maybe 100 pages total…), it also doesn’t quite fly like it should. When Charles returns to Paris, the stakes ramp up considerably and the book starts to take off and insist that you turn the pages… but then it hits weird bumps, as though Dickens couldn’t help but write a bit more than he needed to. Example Number One: the letter that is presented at Darnay’s second Parisian trial. Written by Manette while imprisoned, it reveals the ugly history that Manette and Darnay had agreed never to discuss or disclose and it provides some crucial backstory – but it also goes on far too long. I mean, seriously. It goes on ad nauseum. To the point that it complete undercuts the momentum that has been building into those final scenes. The sequence where Darnay, just returned home, is arrested again is surprisingly tense – so why does Dickens feel the need to lower the stakes by boring us with this story? It’s a fascinating conundrum.
Of course, we read Dickens for a specific reason: his characters. I don’t know anyone who can’t recall specific characters in a Dickens work – even if they just know A Christmas Carol and the Muppet version at that. There’s a reason these characters survive in our collective consciousness and that is, quite simply, that they’re so real they seem like people we have met. Even the relatively broadly stroked characters of this book (come on – Lucie is about as two-dimensional as they get) are fascinating and some of them do transcend their mundane counterparts: Madame Defarge is, quite simply, terrifying. The image of her sitting, with her knitting, eyes pouring over the crowd… that’s indelible. That’s a character I won’t soon forget.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel, for me, was to read an Englishman’s take on the French Revolution some 50 years after the fact. You don’t necessarily think about it when you pick up the book – but this was one of the earliest works of what we know now and love as historical fiction. It blends together because Dickens was writing in the 1850s, the Revolution is closer in time than the present… but it’s like Matthew Weiner writing Mad Men today. Dickens is looking back at a time and making subtle winks to a readership who is still connected enough to the time that they get the jokes – but also far enough removed that they can look back and say “my god, how barbaric!” The lines about the American Revolution were hilarious – and probably still moderately uncomfortable for Dickens’ English readership – and to hear about Soho in the days when it was still mostly fields… well that’s a magic in and of itself.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Although it took me a little while to warm into it – and I was reading it during an intensely stressful week – I found myself gripped by the book in a way I wasn’t anticipating. When you get into the swing of Dickens, there’s something relaxing about it. It’s almost as though you get to detach and let your mind drift a bit because you’re so at ease. I think it has something to do with his writing and that sense of capturing people who are so human that they must, in fact, be real. And man, those last hundred pages are downright gripping. I challenge you to get to the end and not feel a sense of excitement and relief and sadness as that man goes to the “far far better thing” and the blade sings down.