Husband-Wife Book Club Reads “A Tale of Two Cities”

As part of our New Year’s Resolutions, Jason and I decided to start a husband-wife book club. Here are our reviews about the second book on our list: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This time again the book was the wife’s pick.

What the wife says:

I’ve had a mixed bag of experiences with reading Charles Dickens over the years. I read Great Expectations as a teen and enjoyed it, although I found the language rather dense at times, and sometimes hard to follow. Funnily enough, I can’t remember anything about reading Hard Times as a university student (although not for a class), except that I enjoyed it. Oliver Twist, however, was another story. Hated the book, but loved the musical. Go figure.

However, I figured A Tale of Two Cities would be a sure success. Unlike Oliver Twist, it was written towards the end of Dickens’ career. And it’s about the French Revolution, so it’s bound to be exciting. And everyone goes around quoting “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the beginning of the first sentence of the novel.

Well, I have to say “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” accurately expresses my experience of reading A Tale of Two Cities. Except, I’d reverse the sentence to read “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.”

First, the worst of times:

The beginning is so slow. There are chapters with no characters whatsoever where Dickens writes in pure historical metaphor, quoting past events in flowery language, with subtle allusions to changes in legislation, or minor murders, or what-have-you. Without the trusty notes at the back of the book, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what the hell was going on.

When characters are introduced, the scenes jump around so frequently it is hard to keep track of them all. Sometimes we are following a touching father-daughter reunion. Other times we are listening in on the banter between a drunk and a banker. Other times we are in a wine shop in Paris, trying to grasp at some subversive activity. And through it all, I often thought, “So what?”

The transition between the scenes was jarring and the hints at intrigue that were probably supposed to propel the reader through the several hundred pages, such as “Why was the father imprisoned before the book started?” or “What is Mr. Darnay’s true identity?” or “How will this family be connected to the French Revolution?” really didn’t get resolved until the third act. Which means as a reader you have to wade through dense, archaic, indirect prose and choppy scenes for approximately 500 pages.

I am a very fast reader. This book took me over two weeks to finish. This is saying something. I considered abandoning it many times.

Sometimes, I’d be thinking along the lines, “Wow. They got married. That was quick. I never realised there was any love there because instead of following their love story we were stuck following that banker for a million years.”

Or later, I’d think, “Seriously? Sidney Carton? Wow. He came out of nowhere.”

Or “When will this revolution just start already and turn from knitting needles to knives?”

In fact, I mostly read this novel to prove I could. However, it wasn’t all bad. There was some humour in a particular graveyard scene. And sometimes how Dickens conveys the mood and atmosphere is brilliantly cinematic.

Still. Around 500 pages of introductory material. That. Is. A. Lot.

It almost drove me to make shoes.

The best of times:

Finally, in the third act, the pacing improves drastically. I read the third act in one night. It was just over 250 pages. And Dickens does actually tie all the characters together in the final plot points. He definitely pulled a fast one on me. There were twists I didn’t see coming.

The mob mentality, the moral discussions, the character development in several key characters, as well as the parallelism with the beginning and the end showed why Dickens is considered a master.

Even though his characters achieve such lofty ideals their actions become implausible, as a reader you are left wishing that humans did act that way and wondering if they ever will.

So… if you can endure 500 pages of introduction for this small but stirring conclusion, A Tale of Two Cities might be worth the endurance. If not, well, there are classics that are much easier to read.

What the husband says:

I’ve always had mixed experiences with classic novels. Either I enjoy them and manage to finish them like them like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights, or I lose interest and leave them unfinished, like War and Peace.

A Tale of Two Cities falls into the latter category. Emily actually read it but alas, I do not have her patience. She told me it got interesting by Part 3!

I can say that my first encounter with this book was probably about twenty years ago, when I was just a kid. Back then, I thought the opening paragraph about the best of times and the worst of times was pretty cool and I memorized that paragraph. When I tried to read it a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t get past the first couple of pages and went back to reading about public-key cryptography.