But I really wanted to join Fanda's Celebrating Dickens event this Feb (and still had four Dickens titles on my list), so I decided to give A Tale of Two Cities a try. It's different from his other books in that it's historical fiction so isn't just set in Victorian London. I knew it was about the French Revolution, which is fascinating, so I was cautiously optimistic! It turns out I had good reason to be - A Tale of Two Cities is already destined to be a favourite.
A Tale of Two Cities starts with a prisoner, Doctor Manette, who has been released after spending eighteen years wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille. His daughter Lucie travels to Paris to bring him home to London, where their lives become entwined with those of Charles Darnay, a half-French aristocrat and Sydney Carton, a lawyer. Meanwhile revolution is beginning in the streets of Paris, stirred by the wine shop owner Defarge. As events turns deadly and the guillotine falls into greater use, the main characters are caught up in a desperate battle for survival. Long hidden secrets are revealed and humanity itself falls into question.
The main reason I loved this book is that it is so tightly and cleverly plotted. It's a reasonable length at 400 pages, but not a word is wasted and there's enough twists and turns to keep the entire story captivating. Although I guessed the final twist (I hoped I was wrong!), there was plenty of surprises and most of them left me in awe at Dickens' skill. So many clever little clues that only made sense later on in the novel! As with all good historical fiction, the story ran alongside the historical setting with equal importance, rather than either one being dominated by the other.
The writing about the revolution was beautiful, even if it was about a less than beautiful subject. Dickens manages to make your heart swell with revolutionary fever when the people first rise up against clear injustice, but later the same characters disgust you. There's a lot of 'long range' stuff about key events and it works well. There's one scene where Mr Lorry (a friend of Doctor Manette) is watching citizens return repeatedly into the night to sharpen their weapons as blood drips through the streets and it's very powerful. Although Dickens' perspective can be a bit simple (and anti-French), he does a great job of portraying what it would have felt like to be swept up in a storm of events like the French Revolution.
I also loved the way Dickens wrote about humanity in this book. There's a lot of profound observations about life and love that had me whipping the highlighter out! I especially loved this one about Doctor Manette because it so reminded me of myself;
"It may be the character of his mind, to be always in singular need of occupation. The less it was occupied with healthy things, the more it would be in danger of turning in the unhealthy direction."
All this great writing about the characters made me very attached to them and I did have a bit of a cry at the ending, especially as Darnay had never even thought to write a letter to Carton. Sydney Carton is a fascinating character with plenty of ambiguity about him. Lucie was the only character I couldn't get on with, mainly because she was just too good all of the time. And everyone was in love with her, because she was so good. I prefer my characters to be more of a mix of good and bad.
On the whole, I was surprised at how much I loved this book. It's now on my favourites shelf on goodreads and it will certainly be revisited at some point in the future. Hopefully my new found friendship with Dickens will continue into the next book of his I read!
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1859
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: book 8/72
Great review! I read this book this month too, and I loved it as well (though not as much as Great Expectations!). I definitely bawled like a baby when Sidney died, and I wasn't even that much of a fan of his during the first half of the novel.ReplyDelete
I'm so glad you enjoyed this tale by Dickens! Hopefully you'll enjoy his next few as well.
Why did you prefer Great Expectations? I feel like I really missed something about that book....Delete
I didn't like Sydney until the end, either.
I think the 'too good and sweet' heroine is a weakness of Dickens' books probably because that's how the Victorians liked them. I haven't read this one yet but I'm halfway through Bleak House and loving it.ReplyDelete
Hope you will enjoy your next Dickens.
You're probably right about the Victorians liking their female characters like that, but its just so unbelievable!Delete
Glad you're enjoying Bleak House, look forward to your review :)
Oh wow . . . well, okay, sounds like there's hope for Dickens yet. A Tale of Two Cities might just be the one to bring me around.ReplyDelete
It was for me, and I was pretty firm in my anti-Dickens views!Delete
I've long considered A Tale of Two Cities to be my least favorite (of a relatively limited number) of Dickens novels. I love A Christmas Carol, but Great Expectations is my favorite, followed closely by Bleak House. This is the second post in the last week that has me wondering if it's time to revisit A Tale of Two Cities. Great review, Sam.ReplyDelete
We're the opposite, GE would be my least favourite so far, and ToTC my favourite - although I still have lots to go!Delete
Wow, I could have written the intro to this post myself. I'm a huge Christmas Carol fan, but I really struggled with Great Expectations and that kind of put me off trying any more Dickens. I've always been pretty curious about A Tale of Two Cities, and I think you may have convinced me to give Dickens another shot!ReplyDelete
Given that our past experiences are so similar, I hope you enjoy A Tale of Two Cities as much as I did!Delete
Well this is good to hear! I did enjoy reading A Christmas Carol, but only made it halfway through Our Mutual Friend simply because it was just too much--too many characters with too many quirks and too many pages with too many words--but this might be a good one to try.ReplyDelete
I found Great Expectations too much too and the characters didn't feel like real people. Hope you like ToTC as much as I did, if you do decided to give it a try.Delete
Great review! I'm so glad you enjoyed this one of Dickens. I absolutely love love LOVE this novel and reading your review's just reminded me why all over again. All the characters! Aren't they awesome? I can't remember her name right now but what about Lucie's maid? She was so bad ass. And ugh, Sydney. He had my heart for the entire length of the book. He was so snarky, and you're right, rather ambiguous, and of course a complete hero by the end. I did hate how Lucie and Charles rushed off in the end leaving him to his fate. Maybe there were grateful glances from Lucie (Charles was kind of out of it if I remember right) but on the whole I thought they were only too eager to get away from it all and let Sydney take Charles' place *SOBS*ReplyDelete
And you're right. Lucie was far too sweet, but as one of the commentors said above, it seemed to have been a thing back then. I thought Sydney was far too good for her actually :P
I'm glad to hear you thought so well of this book. I agree that the revolution side of things was tied in incredibly well and really kept the tension going throughout the novel, until it built up to that peak in the end. It's one of my favorites too, and one I intend to revisit. Glad it was able to convince you of its good qualities =)
Thanks for the detailed comment, I really love getting comments like this one :)Delete
Lucie's maid is Miss Pross and yes she is awesome, I can't believe I forgot to mention her in my initial review! I get the impression that Lucie thought Charles was Sydney until they had already left Paris, given that he was out of it when he was put in the carriage and that they did look so alike?
I also have a problem with Dickens: I enjoy the story behind the narrative, I really want to like him and his works, but somehow reading Dickens is no joy for me (that said, I've never read a Christmas Carol).ReplyDelete
I'm really happy you liked this book. If you ever feel like writing, you could tell us about discovery the joy of Dickens. It'll sure will help other readers.
A Christmas Carol is a complete joy, it's so short and the writing doesn't veer into over-description, like Dickens is guilty of sometimes.Delete
I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this! I think I read it in high school and didn't care for it, but I read David Copperfield later and loved it. I'd like to give this one another try.ReplyDelete
I don't think I would have liked this in secondary school, I wouldn't have had the emotional maturity for it. Hope your opinion changes if you do give it another go!Delete
As the French Revolution has always been a very interesting period to me, I really look forward to reading this book. Also, it'll be my first Dickens. For some reason I've never felt quite drawn to this author, I hope it'll change though :)ReplyDelete
The French Revolution is fascinating. I didn't know much about it until recently but I've been taking a history course with Coursera and it is so interesting. Hope you enjoy your first Dickens!Delete
It's good that you enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities. I was forced to read that one when I was 15 and didn't really like it very much. I don't think it's appropriate material for most 15-year-olds. Since then, I've become a huge fan of Dickens (though I agree that he uses coincidence as a literary device)...I like his analysis of the failings of the social system. Tale of Two Cities is a book that I've thought about re-reading recently. I think I might enjoy it quite a bit more now. :)ReplyDelete
Forced readings tend to not win fans, do they? I wouldn't have appreciated this book at 15 either!Delete
I LOVED it at 15! But then I have to confess that I am more than a little weird and probably no standard to go by ;DDelete
Anyway, I consider it to be humanly impossible NOT to love this book. It is pure beauty, the first sentence already had me so hooked that I read the biggest part of it in one sitting.
Dicken's portrayal of the revolution is so passionate and at the same time feels so realistic that I think I learned more about the French revolution from him than in History class. And Let's not forget Sydney Carton, who will likely forever be the only man in my heart ;)
A lovely review of a lovely book! I haven't read this in ages and it's about time I re-read it!ReplyDelete
Glad you like this book too :)Delete
I'm sorry to hear you've had a hard time with Dickens before, but so glad to hear that you enjoyed this one so much! I am currently reading Great Expectations. I also have A Tale of Two Cities on my Classic Clubs list and my TBR pile :-)ReplyDelete
Are you enjoying Great Expectations? I really wanted to like it but I just couldn't love it.Delete
A fine review. I read the abridged version a long time ago and I even have a copy for my kids. It will be nice to read the unabridged version for finer details. Thanks for sharingReplyDelete
Ooh, a rewriting of the book for children? I'd love a link to it, I'm a teacher and my class have already loved retellings of Shakespeare so I think they would definitely enjoy that.Delete
This particular Dickens has always freaked me out. I don't know why seeing as I don't actually know anything about it. You've shown me the light - it sounds wonderful. So glad you enjoyed it.ReplyDelete
The history used to freak me out (I didn't know much about the French Revolution) but it's actually very easy to follow.Delete
Haha, the first paragraph sums up my feelings completely! I adore A Christmas Carol, I must have read it four times.ReplyDelete
I imagine lengthy tomes full of dreary stuff about social injustice and characters that are more caricatures than real people.
But this is EXACTLY how Oliver Twist came across to me, you're completely right. You're right to steer clear!
I'd always assumed that A Tale of Two Cities would be along the same lines though. To be fair, I don't know the plot in the slightest little bit but for some reason it didn't appeal. However, I might actually give it a go now so thanks for the review :)
Oh, I'm so happy you liked this! It makes me want to give it another go. I tried to read it once and just couldn't get into it. I do love Dickens though.ReplyDelete
I've read a very limited amount of Dickens not so much because I'm intimidated (I'm not) but rather I have a natural disdain for Victorian literature as a whole. I find almost everything from the time period to be either excessively sentimental or excessively wooden. I'm waiting for that one novel to fall in my hands and change my mind. I've not read this one. Maybe I'll give it a go.ReplyDelete
I read this back in high school and didn't love it, but now I think if I went back to read it, I would really enjoy it. I have a real fascination for the French Revolution and even now, I love the first line of the book and the last (I think it's the last). He sure knew how to turn a phrase!ReplyDelete
I envy, envy, envy, you have read the book! I too must read this for the classic club. if you love it, I will do too! :)ReplyDelete
Ah, you made me want to read A Tale of Two Cities once again. I read the translation (Bahasa Indonesia) last year, and am curious of the original version as you said Dickens wrote it quite efficiently this time.ReplyDelete
I agree with Lucie Mannet, she's too good to be true, but then, most of Dickens' protagonists are like that. Hopefully you'd come with more and more of his works. Oh, and try to read his biography, his life is not less interesting than his books!
This has been on my list for aaaages! I'm absolutely itching to read it now! Sounds amazing.ReplyDelete
Recently I've been reading a lot of Dickens, but I remember how much I hated Tale of Two Cities when I was a freshman in high school. I've often wondered if I should re-read it so that I could appreciate it better...but there are so many OTHER Dickens novels that I haven't read... :)ReplyDelete
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