I’m currently reading Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, for a read-a-long. At over 1000 pages, this puppy is a chunkster. Luckily, it is comprised of three books (The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross), and we’re reading a book a month. So what follows is my ramblings on The Wreath (and some of The Wife, since I’m about halfway through the entire thing at this point). And be warned…my ramblings include some pretty important plot points and other significant shit (and yes, that’s a literary term).
Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize back in the 1920’s, primarily for this book and another Norwegian saga. She is known for her sweeping tales of Norway in the Middle Ages. Kristin Lavransdatter is set during the 14th century. It is the story of Kristin (duh), the beloved daughter of Lavrans, a prosperous landowner and farmer. Kristin’s mother, Ragnfrid, is a bit distant. I’d say she suffers from depression, but in the book she just runs hot and cold. I actually feel bad for Ragnfrid…I think she got a bit of a raw deal from both her husband and her daughter, and the author. The Wreath sets up some tension between mother and daughter, yet by the time she dies (oh please, no squawking…at 1000+ pages you can’t tell me you didn’t see that coming) nothing had really come of it. I think Ragnfrid needed more air time, so to speak. I would’ve liked to have read more about her.
Anyhoosie, back to the story. Kristin is betrothed to Simon, a nice young man. However, after a near rape and the death of a close friend, she is sent to a nunnery for a year (to let gossip die down). There, she meets Erlend. While Erlend can do no wrong in Kristin’s eyes, he has been ex-communicated from the church for having two children with a married woman. Kristin is able to convince Simon to break the betrothal (no easy thing that, in 14th century Norway). But when news gets out about who she truly loves, Kristin’s father is appalled and refuses to let them marry. After many months spent moping around the family farm, her father finally relents. And when faced with such conversations as “Jesus Christus, little Kristin, are you so unhappy” - “I think I’m going to die from it, Father,” (p. 238) you can’t blame the man. And the fact that this book predates Twilight by almost 90 years is a good thing; otherwise I’d be crying that it was a Twilight knockoff. Okay, not really. The writing is much, much, much better. But the teenage angst? That is most definitely present.
And since that is essentially the end of Book 1 (well, there’s a marriage and whoopsie, Kristin realizes she’s preggers before the wedding), it’s now time to end the synopsis and dish.
I’m having mixed thoughts. On the one hand, I love the writing and the setting…the smoky halls…the fearsome wolves in the forest…the icy winters. And lowing cows. I just adore lowing cows…they’re so much more eloquent than when they moo, don’t you think? I know my synopsis sounds kind of soap opera-ey, but the book certainly doesn’t read that way. Undset is good at sneaking in historical stuff in a subtle way, so it’s like you’re right there with Kristin and the lice and the mite-ridden fish and the brewing ale.
However, the politics of 14th century can be a bit confusing (as I know squat about Norwegian history…and I’m too lazy to go read the endnotes, especially as they interrupt the flow of the story). At first, I wasn’t too concerned about not understanding, but as I get further into Book 2 I realize that the politics are going to impact the story. So…uh-oh. Also, Kristin needs to get over herself. She has quite the talent for self-recrimination, and for other-recrimination, too. If she doesn’t shape up, I’m going to loathe her by Book 3. As we know from Frankenstein, I have little patience for “oh woe is me” characters. And while Kristin isn’t really “oh woe” she is a bit “what have I done.” She also has a disturbing tendency to cry as soon as a conversation starts not going her way. I’m this close to tossing her a hair shirt and telling her to get over herself.
However, what makes me want to bop the characters over the head is part of what makes this book timeless. Undset wrote flawed characters. They doubt themselves (and we’re talking some serious, serious doubting). They screw up. They’re jealous. They’re accusatory. They’re, well, you get the idea.
Another reason for the genius of this book is that it deals with themes that are still applicable today. Kristin is a disobedient daughter. She refuses to listen to what others have to say about her boyfriend. She has premarital sex. She loves her boyfriend so much she could die. See, it’s just like Twilight! Okay, kidding, but still.
There is also some heavy religious stuff that I’m struggling with. These people go to mass all the freakin’ time! And the emphasis on chastity and being born within wedlock and recrimination and repenting is almost too much. But then, this is the Middle Ages. I’m torn between wondering if Undset was serious (she converted to Catholicism later in life) or if I’m supposed to want to bop everyone on the head. The one thing I do know is that I am forever grateful I wasn’t a woman (or a man) during this time. I love refrigeration and indoor plumbing way too much.
So there you go. Yes, I like the book and I’m glad I’m reading it. No, I’m not loving the characters, but the immersion into history is totally worth it.