I read the first section of this book in a hurry. Overwhelmed by an overly eventful month and my hefty reading choices (all three of them…!) I chose to devote the larger part of three evenings to The Wreath and just get it over with. I didn’t take notes, my yellow highlighter didn’t mark a single page, and the story didn’t settle very far into my consciousness.
That doesn’t mean that the book didn’t make an impression on me. I just didn’t bother to think too hard about it. This is slightly unfortunate, I’m finding, now that I am sitting down to try to pull together some thoughts. In fact I’ve been trying to pull together some thoughts (well actually, I’ve been continuing to avoid doing so) for three days.
Fortunately I’m not alone – the other participants in this read-along have started posting their reviews, and reading what they have to say and joining in the discussion through comments has kicked my brain back into action.
Let’s see. I’ll use these excerpts from the Penguin Reading Guide that I found online to explain the plot more simply than I’m capable of:
In Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922), Sigrid Undset interweaves political, social, and religious history with the daily aspects of family life to create a colorful, richly detailed tapestry of Norway during the fourteenth-century.
In The Wreath Undset tells the story of a headstrong young woman who defies the expectations of her much-beloved father, the lessons of her priest, and conventions of society when she is captivated by a charming and dangerously impetuous man.
Please pardon the disjointed babble that follows… 🙂
I essentially liked this first chunk of the book. It started off slowly, introducing Kristin as a seven year old, building the atmosphere of the family farm, and setting the stage for medieval Norway. The first really interesting scene involved Kristin being tempted by what appears to be an elf maiden, offering her a wreath from across a stream.
Then Kristin gets older, is betrothed to a suitably nice boy, has a few mild misadventures, goes to a convent, meets a much more intriguing and handsome young man, falls madly in love, defies everyone, mopes her way through every obstacle that arises, until she finally marries this “true love” and isn’t as happy as she might have hoped. End act one.
I said I “essentially” liked the book thus far, because there were a lot of things that I didn’t like. These were fortunately balanced by things that I did. For instance, I don’t care a great deal for Kristin as a character, and her storyline annoys me. The relationship between and history of her parents is much more intriguing, and I hope that it is explored more in the second part. The most interesting, and somewhat minor, character so far is a rather open-minded wandering priest.
My reaction to Kristin at this point is one of frustration. She seems to have no backbone, no thoughts of her own right up until she meets Erland. She latches onto him, and finally gets an independent thought in her head, but unfortunately it’s just the one – “I want to be with this man and no other, at any cost”. She spent her childhood believing everything her beloved father Lavrans said, and then simply replaced him with Erland, only displaying her so called “will” by digging her heels in and refusing to listen to the council of anyone around her.
Granted, love makes you do crazy things. I can relate to that at least. But Erland is just SO not worth the drama…!!! Blah – I despise him – he’s just so…sleazy!
Anyway. The drama – sometimes extremely contrived drama – that trails Kristin is a chore. I can only hope that in the next two sections she will develop a little more personality. I also hope that she will kick her habit of constantly crying over spilt milk (in the religious sense of feeling extremely guilty about her shortcomings and outright sins) but than blatantly continuing to pour the whole gallon all over the floor…
As a piece of historical fiction, Kristin Lavransdatter is excellent. Undset really brings her setting and time period to life, and in a subtle way that never disrupts the flow of the story. There are plenty of details about the daily activities of life on the farm, in the convent, etc., and a reasonable amount of allusions to the actual political situation in Norway at that time.
The balance of religion and magic that is a daily part of life is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story. Kristin’s early encounter with the elf maiden raises no more questions than the religious mysteries her family learns about at mass on Sundays. It is so interesting to me to witness this need to use every available resource to help explain a life that is constantly difficult. In an effort to find some kind of reason, or point to the mish-mash of reality, both religion and magic will do.
Somehow, though, I don’t think the elf maiden with her wreath would have been as harsh, in Kristin’s understanding, as the all-seeing God who knows that she doesn’t deserve to wear the virgin wreath on her wedding day.
I also really enjoyed Undset’s descriptions of the landscapes of Norway, and in general the descriptive passages – between Undset and Tiina Nunnally’s lovely translation, there were some beautiful pieces of writing.
I feel a strange reluctance to pick up the book again and begin the next section, since I’m fairly certain that it is not ultimately going to go in a direction that I like. However, I will continue reading because, while I’m not thrilled with Kristin, there is enough going on around her that interests me.
I am grateful that I’m reading this book with a group, and have been really impressed by the insightful and thought-provoking blogs I’ve read so far. The shared reading experience is kind of better than the actual book, and I’m looking forward to continuing to get the variety of “takes” on the story.