There was no other book more appropriate for me to use as my first book review on this website. Even though it’s not a book everyone would choose to pick up, Kristin Lavransdatter is well worth the effort.
This 1,100 page book is actually the compilation of Sigrid Unset’s trilogy which includes these three books: The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. In 1928, the author received the Nobel Prize in Literature for this work. Furthermore, she converted to become Catholic as a result of her research and writing of these novels.
The fictional story takes place in 14th century middle-age Norway and unfolds the full life story of a woman named Kristin Lavransdatter. The reader is drawn into the choices she makes and has to live with even though they ultimately lead to her demise. It is full of historical and relational drama, while brimming with Catholic culture.
I would not be as bold as to claim that I fully understood the depth of Unset’s writing, but I will certainly declare that it was by far the most wonderful book I’ve ever read! Even through years that have passed since I held this great work in my hands, I still feel the remnants of delight and satisfaction that came with the experience.
In the introduction of my copy, the translator speaks of her experience with old woman’s response when she was seen reading this novel on a train ride. She recalls that the woman’s remarks were “accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.” It fascinated me that the translator thought that this book leaves one with an overall feeling, verses the memories of the specific story line. I found this to be absolutely true.
After staying up all night to finish the book, I placed it down at 9AM and began to weep. I felt this warm sensation in my heart and had difficulty controlling the tears. I’ve never experienced that before or since with a novel. In other reading experiences I have been left with this feeling of wanting more. For example, I would want to know more about Mr. Darcey and Elizabeth Benett. What was their life like, did they have children, were they happy? With Kristin Lavransdatter, that was not the case. My emotion was not from a lack of closure or incompleteness; rather, it came from the sense of full satisfaction. Somewhat similar to the satisfaction ones feels when they place the fork down after eating the last bite of their favorite dessert. It wasn’t the greatness of the story, though greatness would be an understatement, it was the writing itself that made me walk away with the sensation of pleasure.
Sigrid Undset has an amazing insight into humanity. There is not one character that you can cling to and say “Ah, now there is my model for sanctity.” That’s because the characters are all presented as completely and foolishly human. She doesn’t gloss over the consequences of poor choices. She shows humanity in it’s true, raw, imperfect, yet potentially beautiful form.
In short, this is a must read. It’s a classic. It will take an effort to acclimate your brain, but once you’re in, you’re hooked. On a practical note, I recommend you start a family tree inside the cover of your copy to keep characters straight. So when you feel like putting forth the effort, pick this one up. Then when you are finished, I would love to share in your satisfying sigh of pleasure as we recollect the perfection of her writing.