a tale that begins with two cities

I thought it might be fitting to start a blog about books with a classic.  I just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Though I am an avid reader, have a B.A. in English and considered myself reasonably well read, this was my first time reading AToTC.  Dickens has never been a favorite of mine, nor is the Victorian period one I’m drawn to.  But since I am currently between schools while working on my Master’s, I am trying to keep myself in the loop by reading some of those iconic works that have somehow slipped thru the cracks of my lifelong reading list.   And while taking a Victorian lit class last spring, I came to appreciate the period more (much thanks to the post-modern feminist focus of the course provided by one of my favorite profs, Genie).  So, with all of this as background, when I was watching Flash of Genius, and Bob Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) reads the first paragraph of AToTC to show that new things could be made from old pieces (words, in Dickens’ case, electrical thingamajigs in the case of Kearns), the book got added to the library book list in my head.  (I have yet to make enough money to afford my reading habit, so the local library is a friend and lifesaver.  I knew that Portland was a good place to be when – on my first trip to a local library – I found five interesting books to read in under 10 minutes, only two of which were on my mental list.)

We’ve all heard those first words – “It was the best of time, it was the worst of times.” But it wasn’t until I read the introduction that I found out that the book was set during the French Revolution, and the ‘two cities’ in the title were London and Paris.  And until I read that intro, I don’t remember ever wondering which two cities the book was about.  And then, of course, I wondered what kind of idiot I must be for not being curious about that before now.

I suppose I should say here that, if you haven’t read this book either, this column contains spoilers.   The intro to the edition that I read talked about how AToTC was the Dickens novel that received the least critical acclaim, while  remaining one of his most popular with readers. And while I am certainly not widely read in the Dickens’ oeuvre, it does move along rather quickly and with less of the obsession with detail I’ve found in other works of his, as the intro suggests.  And the plot is certainly not a mystery (I don’t think many are surprised when the amazingly twin-like men who are morally and psychologically opposite love the same woman and end up switching places at the end), but, as with most great novels IMHO, it is the characters and the masterfully suspenseful writing that keeps you reading long after you should have turned out the light.  It was slow going in the beginning as I accustomed myself to the Victorian syntax and pace, but by half-way thru I was skipping my online viewings of Lost to find out what would happen next.

I knew that when Lorry was going to Paris after the revolution had broken out, that Darnay would not be far behind.  I knew that when a mysterious stranger showed up at Lorry’s flat in Paris, that it was certainly Carton.  But the appearance of Miss Pross’ brother was a complete surprise, as was the real identity of Mrs. Defarge.  Dickens wisely (yes, that’s me, passing judgment on one of the masters of the English novel) chooses to reassure the reader that Lucie will survive the horrors of the revolution, while leaving us hanging as to the fate of the rest until the very end.  We buy into the release of Darnay and are almost as devastated as she when he is re-arrested the same night.

In the end, I enjoyed the novel more than I expected to (which, in all honesty, was true of most of the novels I read in my Victorian lit class).  I’ve tried some older novels on my own in the past (Moby Dick, for instance) that I just never finished.  Maybe what I was missing was a critical perspective – which would give me something to focus on if the story or writing didn’t hold me – but A Tale of Two Cities did not need anything but a little patience to hook me all on its own.

As with everything I do in my life, but particularly in what I read, I try to find the lessons offered by the text.  I didn’t find a lot in AToTC that I didn’t already know (oppression is bad, the reaction to oppression is usually ugly, never lie about who you are, true love will save you in the end – though not usually by providing a body double to die in your place) so it won’t be going on my personal Favorite list.  But if you are looking for a book to read that will impress your cerebral friends at cocktail parties (so, basically, the gay men in your life), A Tale of Two Cities will fit the bill without boring you to tears in the process.

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