Tag Archive: review 27


An Unconventional Love Story: Part I

I’ve decided to triple dip with my next few posts.  Technically the three books I’ll be blogging form one story, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset.  But seeing as how the story runs over 1,000 pages, and my March/April dry spell has me just barely on pace to meet the goal, I’ve decided to count each of the three books within Kristin Lavransdatter as one post, and I don’t feel too bad about this.  I would do the same thing with The Lord of the Rings, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a trilogy – Tolkien intended it as one story in three books/six parts.  At any rate, enough hemming and hawing and rationalizing my blogging practices – it’s my blog (well, partly) and I can do with it what I want. 😛

I remember years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, seeing a reference to Kristin Lavransdatter.  The book sounded intriguing – a relatively unknown work by a Danish-born Norwegian convert to Catholicism plumbing the depths of questions about love, marriage, desire, and shame.  Though I was intrigued, as with so many other books, I filed it away and never got back to it.  But the prompting of my co-blogger, along with other factors, led me finally to pick it up (on Kindle, thank God – much lighter than the physical book 😉 ).  I just finished the first part, The Bridal Wreath, last night, and all I can say is: wow, thanks, C!  This is one of the most profound books I have read this year, perhaps in my life, and I’m only through the first part.

The story centers on the title character, Kristin Lavransdatter, the daughter of a medieval Norwegian farmer, Lavrans (medieval Norwegian last names were not especially creative, consisting of the father’s name followed by sohn [son] or datter [daughter]).  We meet Kristin at a young age, and the first part of the story follows her growth up to her wedding night.  The path toward this night is anything but simple, though.  In her early maidenhood, her father Lavrans finds a fitting match and arranges a betrothal.  Though she wants to follow her father’s will, it pains Kristin, as she has deep affection for her childhood friend Arne.  A series of mishaps leads Kristin to ask her father to delay the betrothal ceremony so that she can spend a year in a convent.  During this year Kristin meets and falls in love with a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) named Erlend.  Unbeknownst to Kristin when she first falls for him, Erlend has already sired two children in an adulterous relationship.  One can easily imagine how this goes over in medieval society.  Nevertheless, even once she has learned this information, Kristin remains firm in her desire for and love of Erlend, to the point of breaking off the betrothal her father had arranged despite the pain it causes him.  The first book ends on Kristin’s wedding night, which turns out to be anything but the storybook wedding she had longed for.

I’ve deliberately left some of the story’s details vague so as not to give away too many spoilers (though it’ll be hard to keep this up as I post on the next two parts of the story).  Suffice it to say that Unset’s novel is one of the most profound meditations on the nature of love, marriage, desire, shame, guilt, and family loyalty, among other themes, that I have ever read.  The time of arranged marriages in western civilization is long past – most people today, at least in the west, choose their spouses, and usually do so out of love.  Unset’s story explores how the nature of desire sometimes clashed with the practice of arranged marriages in medieval society.  In the process, she suggests that marrying for love in terms of affection is not necessarily the best recipe for success.  There is no doubt throughout the story that Kristin has deep affection for Erlend, even after his past catches up with him and impinges on both of them.  Several characters in the story wonder aloud whether the love Kristin and Erlend have for one another can overcome his track record.  Though I’ll have to wait to read the next two parts to see for certain, the early indications are not promising.  But Kristin Lavransdatter is not simply about Kristin and Erlend.  Unset also masterfully shows the effect of this relationship on Kristin’s other relationships.  Whereas Kristin enjoyed a deep and tender relationship with her father during her childhood years, her decision to break off the betrothal he had arranged, and particularly for an adulterer who has sired two children out of wedlock, puts an intense strain on her relationship with Lavrans.  Perhaps most intriguingly, this is not because of some antiquated commitment to arranged marriages.  At one point in the story, Lavrans tells his daughter that, had Arne asked for her hand, Lavrans would have approved.  Indeed, Lavrans himself wrestles with the circumstances of his own marriage to Kristin’s mother, as each of them had affections for someone else.  Nevertheless, they both followed through with their parents’ commitment, and managed to sustain a successful marriage.

On a purely thematic level, then, this is a powerful book (so far, though I doubt the rest of the tale will disappoint), and this is to say nothing of Unset’s prose, which goes down like a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.  I wish I could say more, but this post is already approaching my (arbitrary) limit, and so, until I read the next part, I will simply say: read The Bridal Wreath.  It will give you much food for thought on one of the most important questions we all face, and it just might challenge the way you think about love and marriage.

Twenty-seven down, (at least) twenty-five to go.

Ta,
J

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A Requiem for the Towers

My best friend recommended this book.  She said to me, “it is a book about 9/11 that’s not about 9/11.”  My response was “huh?” And she just said back to me, “read it, it is brilliant.” So I did, and she was (of course) right. The book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it is a stunning, just stunning work that explores the lives of people in New York City, set in August 1974.

What happened in August 1974? Well that was when the tightrope walker Philippe Petite threw a cable across the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and practically danced across it, in a feat so daring that the whole city paused to take it in. Below Petite are the ordinary people of New York who observe or experience his walk in different ways all while their lives intersect together. In the foreground are the towers themselves– brash monuments to capitalism, innovation and the confidence of a city–no one knew at that moment that they would become a place of so much tragedy and heartache, instead they were new, shiny, and in many ways, hopeful.

The book is incredibly stylized, and while the plot interweaves with surprising deftness, it is the writing that shines. Essentially it is almost a series of short stories, that tell of the lives of a variety of New Yorkers– a radical monk, a nurse, a hooker, an artist, a judge, a grieving Park Ave mother (whose son died in Vietnam), a foster parent, etc. Each chapter has a  voice that is distinct to the character (the most stunning is the rendering of the hooker– heartbreaking) and the characters move back and forth into each others lives, tragedies, and stories. Multiple themes abound, but the chief ones that stood out to me were grace and redemption. Grief and death shadow the characters, as does war (Vietnam.)  All of this goes on under the actions of the tightrope walker, who is the thread that holds the stories together– he stands for the miraculous, the golden moment, the astounding, while the rest of the city lurches along in its dirty, grinding life.

It is a stunning book because in many ways it reminds us that history is cyclical. With the destruction of the towers would eventually come more war, more grief and more people looking for their own personal grace as New Yorkers. Although these events are never directly indicated, they are alluded to, a constant foreshadowing, a constant play of darkness and light, birth and death, the building of new ideas, and destruction because of certain ideals.  The Towers in some way were birthed in a hopefulness, a brash defiance, and they came down in a two horrifying and unbelievable moments. But this book reminds you that the towers should not be defined just by their destruction, and that neither should New Yorkers.

This book was fantastic. It is one of the few books from this year that I will buy and re-read, and will no doubt grow richer with each re-reading.  Sections of it just left me stunned and the writing– the writing is enormously exquisite. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this book won the National Book Award, and it richly deserved it.  I will say no more as the book was so rich I have been thinking about it for several days (always the sign of a good book.) All I will say is go out and read it. This is truly one of the finest and most artistic books that I have read in years.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C