Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath (Penguin Classics)

The Wreath - Sigrid Undset, Tiina Nunnally I really do try to be stingy with five star ratings--this came close. Sigrid Undset was one of the first women writers to win the Nobel Prize for literature--and the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy following the life of a 14th century woman more than any work is where she made her reputation. The Wreath, the first novel of the trilogy, opens in 1306 Norway when Kristin's little more than a toddler and continues through to her young womanhood--so this is her coming of age story. For me the key measure of a work of historical fiction is how well does it inhabit its age. Its characters should be more than contemporary people in period dress-up, and very few historical works I've ever read puts you into the mindset and immerses you into the surroundings of another age better than the The Wreath. It follows Kristin's perspective closely, and I can't imagine plucking her from her setting into a time centuries removed. Yet though she inhabits what is for us an alien world where the Catholic faith was central, she feels very relatable and real. Which is not to say I didn't want to throttle her at times. It's amazing to me because from a modern view I suppose I should feel more sympathetic to how she acts in the name of love, but Undset makes you fully feel how foolish and hurtful is Kristin's behavior so much of the time; this is a willful young woman very much ruled by her passions. For a book published in 1920 it's surprisingly sensual and frankly sexual without ever being crude. I often cared more for the secondary characters to be honest. Especially Kristin's parents and such characters as her childhood friend Arne and Brother Edvin. I loved Aashild--a noblewoman wrapped in scandal and rumored to be a witch. I loved Simon Darre too, less flashy a character than Kristin's love Erlend, but to me much more endearing. (Truth to tell, I despised Erlend. Which rather keeps this from being a romance--strictly speaking it could be said to fall into that category in plot--but not in spirit. You feel like you're watching a trainwreck.) In fact, I think if anything deprives this of its fifth star it is that I cared much more about those secondary characters than Kristin--who in comparison seems rather shallow. But she's very young in The Wreath, and that might change in the next two books of the trilogy dealing with the mature woman. This read extraordinarily fast--I read its 300 pages in one sitting. It started out rather slow--it was hard to get used to those Norwegian names at first, but I became more engrossed as I read and in the end it read almost too fast, with no brakes in the smooth prose to force me to savor the narrative. A page-turner in other worlds, that you perhaps speed through too quickly the first time to fully appreciate. I can tell you though that after reading The Wreath I'll certainly be continuing on someday to The Wife and The Cross. I read the Nunally translation which is very readable--I've heard the same can't be said for other translations so be aware of the issue in choosing an edition.