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review 2018-03-15 03:50
Rediscovering a Classic
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

I read A Tale of Two Cities in high school and remembered only a few major characters, the setting, and of course, the knitting. Rereading it after decades of immersion in more recent fiction, I was intrigued by things I never questioned or noticed as a high school junior.


The omniscient narrator sometimes has a cinematic perspective. The opening chapters are remarkably like the opening scenes of a movie, especially where the poor people of Paris drink the spilled red wine.


The awareness of privacy and interiority was to some extent still new. Dickens digresses in a fascinating observation of the individual minds and lives within each home, behind each window, each unknowable to the others. In the Pulitzer prize winning The Transformation of Virginia, 1740 -1790, historian Rhys Isaac connected the rise of literacy and solitary reading with this new sense of privacy, a new phenomenon in a largely public society where most people (other than the wealthy) shared sleeping spaces, even in taverns when traveling, and the wealthy were surrounded by servants. The book is set in the late 18th century when the sense of individual self and individual rights arose, and this of course, is part of the plot. So was that rumination on all those unique, unknowable souls really a digression? Yes and no. With private reflection and self-awareness come questions such as Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton ask themselves about their lives. Questions revolutionaries may also have asked themselves, before they lost their self-awareness to the Terror.


Dickens’ linguistic virtuosity is enjoyable in the same way as hearing a great singer hit a note and sustain it or seeing a dancer spin an impossible series of turns. No one told him not to use –ly adverbs. I found three in one sentence, but that line worked. Semicolons were more like pauses for air than the kind of punctuation we now use. His shift from third person omniscient point of view, past tense, into first person plural, present tense, for one suspenseful scene was unexpected yet effective, moving the reader’s consciousness directly into the shared tension and hope of a group of desperate travelers. He wrote at a time when authors were less constrained by an expected word count than they are now, and he clearly luxuriated in language and in scenes that fully develop a setting, character, or relationship. The plot would move along without his humorous and detailed portrait of Tellson’s Bank, but the pleasure in reading the book would be diminished. The plot would move without the full length of the scenes revealing the lives of the French poor and aristocracy who oppress them, but the emotional impact would be less.


Making no attempt to be impartial, Dickens the social reformer is fully present in the narrative.

Most characters are three-dimensional and complex, but the French aristocrats have few traits, serving as representatives of their caste. Of the major characters, Lucie is the most limited, seen through the eyes of men who idolize her—other characters and the author. (I confess I tired of her expressive forehead.) She struck me as an idealized Domestic Female, set in contrast to Madame Defarge and the Vengeance.


Sydney Carton is the most layered and interesting character. He's witty as he spars with the lawyer he works with, Mr. Stryver, but melodramatic with Lucie, and both aspects of his personality are believable. I also liked Miss Pross, though I’m undecided how I feel about her scene with Madame Defarge. It’s satisfying, but I’m not sure it’s plausible. It’s one part of the story that I completely forgot in the decades since I last read it.


If you also read this in high school and don’t remember much except the first and last lines and three or four characters, you may be impressed with it a second time around.


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review 2017-08-08 03:17
First Dickens I didn't care for...
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

It's true, and I hate to say that I didn't like it, because I am a Dickens fan through and through.  But this was a tough one for me, probably because I never connected with any of the characters enough to really care about them.  Miss Pross was my favorite -- she actually DID something worth rooting for. Sydney's final act (of love I guess) hit me as rather selfish, his thoughts of never being forgotten for his sacrifice.  He does have a couple of the greatest lines in all of literature, I'll give him that.  Also, the French revolution has never held my interest, so the violence was way too much in my opinion.  The best part of the story is in the last 3 chapters.  

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review 2017-07-11 19:37
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

I'd somehow, up to this point, never read A Tale of Two Cities. I know, I can't believe it either. 

Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the years leading up to it, this is, at its very core, a romance novel. I was a little shocked by that, but I certainly didn't mind. Dickens's writing is simply breathtaking, and he never allows the characters' actions to become contrived. These people aren't saccharine cutouts, as is typical of romance novels (even from this era). Instead, it's a roomy, elegant story told with magnificent prose and populated with memorable characters. 

Most Dickens novels drag a bit (at least, the few I've read do), but this one doesn't. Not at all. From its iconic opening passage to the final chapter, the plot is pretty quick and doesn't get bogged down in an excessive amount of characters and subplots (looking at you, Our Mutual Friend). Instead, Dickens focuses on only a handful of characters and develops them fully. By the novel's third part I was truly invested in their lives, and wanted to know how everything would turn out. I truly cared! When reading most novels from the Victorian Age, I find myself a little put off by their chilliness, their dust and age. Not here. A Tale of Two Citiesfeels rather progressive and is very emotionally involving. 

If I were to critique this novel, I would say perhaps Dickens sacrificed a full exploration of the time period he was writing about to, instead, focus on his characters. I would've loved to have seen more build-up to the Revolution, though what the reader does get is fine. I could've done with more guillotine scenes myself. 

So far, this is my favorite Dickens novel — though I have many to read yet. This one certainly deserves its classic status, and I can't wait to give it a reread in a few years.

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review 2017-06-23 00:00
A Tale of Two Cities (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
A Tale of Two Cities (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) - Charles Dickens,Gillen Wood Not my favorite by Dickens, but still a good novel.
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review 2017-05-27 22:17
Review: A Tale of Two Cities
The Annotated A Tale of Two Cities - Susanne Alleyn

Ramblings about the Book

People who follow me may have seen me mention my intent to fit one non-SF&F classic per quarter into my heavily SF&F-based reading diet.  A Tale of Two Cities was my classic reading selection for the second quarter.  Last time, I chose an author and book that was completely new to me.  This time, I chose a book that I had been assigned to read in tenth grade but that I didn’t enjoy at the time and in fact didn’t remember at all about 25 years later.


My interest in this story fluctuated a little bit, especially in the first half, but I enjoyed it quite a bit by the end.  The first chapter starts in 1775, and the book was written by Dickens in 1859, so I guess that makes this historical fiction squared. :)  It’s set just before and during the French Revolution, which is a period of time I knew little about.  No doubt we discussed it in my tenth grade class, but those were the types of lessons that usually had me sneaking to read my own book if I was well-positioned to do so without getting caught, or nodding off in boredom if I wasn’t…


The characters never really grabbed me, except maybe toward the end.  Lucie in particular was hard for me to appreciate.  Dickens tells us about her impact on others but, for the most part, she just seemed to sit around and act distressed or sympathetic or on the verge of fainting without actually doing or saying much.  It's an interesting contrast with the more vivacious female characters in my previous classic selection, Pride and Prejudice.  Of all the characters, I think Lorry was the one who felt the most genuine to me, and he was the one I liked best.  Carton did grow on me quite a bit too, though.  I didn’t dislike the others; I just didn’t feel too invested in them.


Everything is very heavily foreshadowed.  This story didn’t hold many surprises, except for a few small ones, because the author telegraphed everything well in advance.  I was a little over halfway through the book when I finally put two and two together and predicted (correctly) how the book was going to end.  In fact, I felt a little silly for not realizing it at least a couple chapters sooner.  It’s possible that I subconsciously remembered it from 25 years ago, but the book never felt at all familiar to me as I read it.  Well, aside from the opening words anyway.  Despite knowing how things were going to end, I did get really caught up in the story and the emotion of what was happening in the later chapters. 


Ramblings about Annotations

Knowing I didn’t like this book as a teen, I was more nervous about reading it than I otherwise would have been, so I decided to get an annotated version.  I think this was the first time I’ve read anything annotated, and I had trouble finding the right balance.  I don’t normally skim when I read books.  If the words are there, I’m going to read them.  If my eyes glaze over and I don’t absorb them, I’ll probably go back and read them again.  So you might be able to imagine how I tackled the annotations at first.  I read every single one of them within the segment where they were presented.  In some of the introductory chapters, there were so many that I lost the flow of the story and had to go back and re-read the chapter afterward.  This may have contributed to my trouble getting into the story, but many of the annotations were very interesting, and I think more historically informative than the story itself, so I did want to read them.


On the other hand, the annotations were sometimes repetitive, and many of the terms that were explained were very obvious within the context and didn’t, in my opinion, need explaining. I guess younger teens and/or people who don’t read as much would appreciate them more.  Also, people with holes in their head.  The ones that gave historical context were the ones I enjoyed the most, when they weren’t repetitive.  For example, I got really, really tired of reading reminders that Dickens was using the title “Monseigneur” in a historically inappropriate manner.  I understood it the first time, really!


About halfway through the book, I started feeling really bogged down by annotations and I started to lose interest in them.  I finally managed to talk myself into skipping them, and I was glad I did.  I’m sure I missed out on other things of interest, but I had reached my limit.  I wasn’t even tempted to go back and skim through the ones I skipped after finishing the book.  If I read other annotated works, I’ll have to try different tactics to figure out what works best for me.  I think, as people have suggested, reading the story by itself and then going back to the annotations afterward will be the best course of action, with the occasional pause to read an annotation during my initial read if I see one tied to something that confused me.


Rambling Summary

Wow, that was a lot of rambling even for me!  I tend to have a rating in mind as I read a book, mentally adjusting it as my opinions change.  This book was no more than 3 stars for quite a while, but it grew on me and I mentally adjusted it to 3.5.  It wasn’t until I finished the book and reflected on how much I enjoyed the last few chapters and the way everything tied together that I realized I couldn’t give it less than 4.  Maybe I didn’t love it as much as many other people do, but I did appreciate it and I hope to give more of Dickens’ work a try someday.

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