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Kristin Lavransdatter (thoughts)

October 27, 2009

KristinLavransdatterKristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset was my third (and final) 1,000+ read this year. Due to some cruel twist of fate, both it and A Suitable Boy became available at the same time (and both had a list of readers waiting, so I knew I couldn’t renew either), so I ended up reading all of KL in seven days. I think that actually worked for the best; I pretty much lived and breathed medieval Norway with Kristin, completely immersed in her life.

The book, which was originally published as three books (The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross), follows Kristin Lavransdatter from when she’s a small child to her death. It was written in the 1920s, and Undset received a Nobel Prize for it, which I completely understand. This book brings medieval Norway to vivid, immediate life. I connected with the world and its inhabitants so well, but at the same time the characters didn’t think like me at all (one of my pet peeves with historical fiction is when characters sound modern). It’s a delicious book, and one I think anyone who enjoys ‘women’s fiction’ (i.e.: much of the book dwells on love or household stuff, with a good amount of religion as well) or historical fiction or being swept away to another land or time (I dare you to say you’re not interested in Vikings!) would love. A quick note on translation: I read the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, which contains all three books in one and a modern translation done by Tiina Nunnally. This translation was wonderful, and based on the translator’s note and a couple of e-mails I’ve received, I’d advice English readers to avoid the older ‘classic’ translation, which was done when translators essentially rewrote the book how they desire.

Several bloggers are doing a read-a-long, in which they read one book a month, which I would definitely have joined in if my library let me check out books for three months. You can read more about it on Emily’s blog, and if you’re nervous about tackling such a big book, go ahead and join! I promise you, it’s really easy to read, and you’ll love it.

I’ve said this every time I review a chunkster, but just to repeat: I find it difficult to discuss such large books. The canvas is so huge, and there are so many things I loved, I find myself almost at a loss. But I’ll try! :) Kristin Lavransdatter was different from several other chunksters I’ve read in one crucial aspect: Kristin is the main character throughout. Undset does change narrators from time to time, but the narrator is always someone closely connected to Kristin, and we never leave her life. I think this makes the book incredibly readable; you never have to switch to events or characters you don’t care about. Everything revolves around Kristin.

The driving forces behind the work are marriage and religion. Kristin is forced to decide between a prudent marriage and a love match, and the consequences of her decision echo through the rest of the book. Meanwhile, while religion isn’t present on every page, it suffuses the thoughts of the characters in the way I imagine it would have in the Medieval world, before the Reformation or the rise of science or our modern skepticism. I’m an agnostic who’s exploring Christianity again, and I found it fascinating. Don’t get me wrong-I sometimes wanted to smack Kristin or some of the other characters upside the head, because they had such different values from me, but that’s what made the book so convincing. I don’t want to imply that Undset has set up a black-and-white morality world. Far from it; the many shades of grey are explored throughout. I think Undset had a definite opinion on marriage and religion (which, after finish the book, I read a bit about her life, and I could have guessed certain bits of it just from KL), but she allows the reader space to make up their own mind as well.

You know what? I’ve just realised I can’t talk much about the plot without giving away who Kristin ends up marrying. And I can’t talk about which characters I loved, which ones drove me crazy, and which ones I hoped would die some medieval death without giving too much away. I knew pretty much nothing about the plot going in, and I think that helped me love the book even more. So I’ll just say, I really hope that you give this book a try (make sure you have the right translation), and aren’t scared off by the page count (the three books come seperately too! So think of it as a trilogy w/ each book around 300 pages). It’s one I’ll definitely be rereading, and I can’t wait to read more of Undset. Her ability to bring medieval Norway to life is truly amazing, and I thank her for sharing it with me.

What’s your favourite book set in the Middle Ages? It’s one of my fave historical periods, and I’ve been craving more of it! Just don’t mention Philippa Gregory, please. ;)

44 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009 10:48 am

    I can’t believe that you read this all in 7 days! I am part of the readalong and am going to take 3 months to get through this one.

    Last night I started to read the Archer and Scott translation and it was terrible! I gave up after just a few pages and have now ordered the Nunnally translation. Your post has reassured me that I’ll be able to catch up with the others despite the delay. I really hope that it is as wonderful as you say.

  2. October 27, 2009 11:29 am

    I read the Archer translation and still loved it. I really want to read the Nunnally translation now too. Some day.

  3. October 27, 2009 11:29 am

    I think it’s a really great story.

  4. October 27, 2009 11:36 am

    Thanks for the heads up on the translator. This is one of the reasons I love book blogging! I’ve got this one on my list of TBRs. Maybe I can fit it in Dec/Jan. Right now I’ve got another chunkster in process (I Am a Cat) and dare not get into another long one yet. I love the cover you included on your post. Is it a piece of tapestry being depicted?

  5. October 27, 2009 11:39 am

    I didn’t realize it was about MEDIEVAL Norway!

    While I don’t think learning the plots of such long books “ruin” them, I also don’t mind learning as I go. It sounds like the setting and characters are real and engaging, so I’m looking forward to it now! I’ll make sure to get a more recent translation.

    I don’t know any medieval novels, but I’m interested to see if anyone does have any others to suggest!

  6. October 27, 2009 11:55 am

    This looks like a great read. I love historical fiction-and there is no greater pet peeve when the characters sound modern. It just kind of ruins the book.

    I wanted to thank you for stopping by on Saturday to cheer me on in the Read A Thon. As a first timer, the comments really helped! :)

  7. October 27, 2009 12:36 pm

    Normally I would just dismiss a book like this, purely because of its size. However, your review had got me desperate to read it. It sounds like a book I could just lose myself in. I haven’t read any medieval historical novels at all, so I will definitely add this to my list.

  8. October 27, 2009 12:54 pm

    I loved this when I read it – getting involved in medieval Norway was wonderful and I definitely found it to be one of the easiest huge classics to read.

    One of my favorite historical novelists is Sharon Kay Penman. She romanticizes quite a bit, but her facts are very accurate and IMO she can immerse you in a medieval world like few others. I don’t think the characters feel quite as medieval as those in this book, but they’re close enough. =)

  9. October 27, 2009 1:07 pm

    This book sounds amazing.

    As for Middle Ages works, I recently read Death Comes as Epiphany by Sharan Newman, set in 12th century France.

  10. October 27, 2009 1:46 pm

    I’m not interesting in Vik…ha, who am I kidding :P Between your review and Jason saying this is a “very nymeth book”, how can I resist? I won’t join the read-along because of my ban, but it’s definitely on my list for next year. And thanks for the tip about the translation!

  11. October 27, 2009 2:46 pm

    I had no idea this was written so recently. Somehow I thought it was several hundred years old?? Strange…

  12. October 27, 2009 2:47 pm

    I’m part of the read-a-long, and would have jumped into Book Two (for November) right away, if it wasn’t for other stuff I’m trying to finish up also. I really want to see what the end results of Kristen’s choices (made in Book I) are.

  13. October 27, 2009 3:26 pm

    When you and Danielle mentioned KL, the book intrigued me and I kept my fingers cross. Then I realize there’s no way I can get into it after Tale of genji and Gone with the Wind, so I switch tack and got a copy for A Suitable Boy. I am going to read A Suitable Boy next month when I get away for my birthday. :)

  14. October 27, 2009 3:50 pm

    I think you’re doing great reviewing the chunksters because I definitely got interested in this book and A Suitable Boy. Both after your reviews! (I read about them before many times but never got interested until I read yours. That’s a high compliment from me! lol)

  15. October 27, 2009 3:53 pm

    Right now I’m reading Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy, which is set in 1199/1200, and it’s AWESOME. Filled with lots of medieval life tidbits and just a little bit of fantasy. :D

    Also some of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are set in the middle ages, and they’re excellent as well! (She also does really good Romans-in-England era historical children’s fiction. Some reviews are up on my blog, if you’re interested.)

  16. October 27, 2009 4:11 pm

    This sounds really fantastic. I haven’t read a great deal of historic fiction from the Middle Ages (I’m a bigger 1860’s-1960’s gal, myself) but this still looks intriguing!

  17. October 27, 2009 4:30 pm

    I would like to read this book/trilogy someday. Thank you for the head’s up regarding translations! If you like Arthurian stuff, try The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (it’s long, but a fast read–and it’s narrated by Morgan le Fay); or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (another chunkster, sorry), the monastery mystery/puzzle…

  18. October 27, 2009 5:42 pm

    I’ve already done my post for The Wreath, which will post on Friday, but I had to laugh at you wanting to smack her upside the head. My post mentions bopping on the head. Usually Kristen, but occasionally Lavrans and Erlend, too.

  19. October 27, 2009 5:55 pm

    I loved this book when I read it years ago.
    Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (a former best-seller) is a great medieval mystery.

  20. October 27, 2009 6:01 pm

    I’ve read the first two books and am looking forward to the third. When I’ve finished, I’ll come back to your review to compare notes!

  21. October 27, 2009 6:10 pm

    I’m so intimidated by this book, even though I’ve heard wondrous things about it. It’s so long, and it’s about Norway which I know nothing about, and medieval times, which I also know nothing about and plus cause there are no pretty dresses to hear about. In sum, I am too scared to read this. Are you sure it is good?

  22. October 27, 2009 7:13 pm

    I wanna read it! Eva, you have a magical ability to make me far less afraid of chunksters. First you made me want to read A Suitable Boy and now Kristin Lavransdatter. Usually I’m scared of that long a committment, but both of these sound so wonderful. I have A Suitable Boy on my shelves right now, so maybe I’ll start there, but maybe the library will have Kristin.

  23. October 27, 2009 8:47 pm

    I always notice this book on the shelf at work and trip over saying the name.

  24. October 27, 2009 9:10 pm

    I’m definitely adding this to my tbr list! That’s a lot of reading in a week but sometimes I think that works best. Otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of all of the characters and events.

  25. October 27, 2009 10:14 pm

    This is one of my favorite classics of all – I read the Nunally translation, too. But not in 7 days!

  26. October 27, 2009 10:37 pm

    I’m not sure which Kristin translation I read, but it was more than 10 years ago. It’s one of the books I brought back to Korea from my US collection. I’d love to read the new translation.
    Everything you said is right and true. It’s time for me to read Kristin again!

  27. October 27, 2009 11:16 pm

    I wish that I could recommend a favorite book set during the Middle Ages, but Kristin L. is definitely my favorite! It’s one of my favorite books of all time, actually. I think you made a great point about how it’s different from many chunksters because it focuses solely on one main character–very different from Tolstoy and others in that respect.

    One interesting thing I discovered while reading this book is that an acquaintance of mine is named after Kristin. Apparently this book had a popularity resurgence in the 50s or something. Before that, Kristen was usually spelt with an “e” but after the book became well known, it was more common to see it spelt “Kristin.”

  28. October 28, 2009 3:36 am

    I read Kristin Lavransdatter last year, and really enjoyed it, so I’m glad that you did too. Actually, I was sitting around between classes at school reading it, and a guy who was walking by did a double take, stopped, and asked ‘Is that Kristin Lavransdatter?’ in a very excited voice. I have never in my life had that happen before, and I read a lot of books in public, so Kristin Lavransdatter definitely has its fans!

    As for other books set in the middle ages…this is probably cheating, but I think my favorite is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I say it’s cheating because it’s actually set partially in the middle ages and partially in the future – the premise is that in the not-all-that-distant future people can travel back in time, and historians regularly go back to the time period they are studying to do field research. However, some time periods are considered much too dangerous to actually travel to, including the middle ages. The protagonist is a history student who convinces the academic powers that be to allow her to travel back to the middle ages, and the book is split between her back then and the rest of the history department in the present/future.

  29. October 28, 2009 3:50 am

    I had never heard of this author before, but after your wonderful, and persuasive, review, I am now very keen to find out more. It sounds amazing, and very different to my usual reading choices. Sometimes it’s good to branch out!

  30. tuulenhaiven permalink
    October 28, 2009 7:08 am

    Yay, I’m glad you liked it! Your review makes me eager to start the second part in November – and thanks for not revealing too much of the plot! I’m wicked impressed that you read the whole thing in 7 days!!! You’re an inspiration to all. :)

  31. justabookreader permalink
    October 28, 2009 7:44 am

    I love long historical fiction! The note about the translation was helpful too.

    I can’t say I have a favorite Middle Ages setting book but lately I’ve been on a Bernard Cornwell kick and have been enjoying the reading.

  32. October 28, 2009 9:26 am

    Phillipa Gregory!!! *evil laugh*

    I read the first book of KL a couple of years ago. I had a hard time connecting to Kristin…I’m not even sure why. I meant to go back and finish the last two parts of the book, but of course, I haven’t. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much, it makes me want to get back into it!!! The writing really is superb.

  33. October 28, 2009 10:33 am

    Jackie, I’m sick so I’m stuck at home most of the time; lots of spare time, lol. I hope you enjoy Nunnally’s translation!

    Wordlily, I think it’s a great story too. :D

    Terri, I’m obsessed with translations, lol-I always research to find best one! I’m impressed you’re reading I am a Cat-that one made me nervous. I’m not sure what the cover is, other than gorgeous. ;)

    Rebecca, yep! I agree-knowing the end of a classic doesn’t ruin it for me, but I think it takes away a bit of the magic.

    Colette, thanks for visiting! And I love your name. :D

    Vivienne, you could definitely lose yourself in it!

    Meghan, ohh-thanks! I actually have a Penman in my TBR books-I’m so glad you recommend her! :)

    Bookshelf Monstrosity, thanks fro the rec-is sounds great!

    Nymeth, lol! I definitely think you’d enjoy it. :)

    Amanda, maybe because it’s set in the Middle Ages?

    Valerie, oh, there are so many results, lol. ;)

    Matt, awesome! A Suitable Boy is 400 pages longer, though, lol. I’m terrified of Tale of Genji, and thoroughly impressed by everyone who reads it.

    Mee, thank you so much! That really means a lot!

    Anastasia, ohh-thanks! I will go check out your reviews. :)

    Pam, try out the first few pages and see what you think!

    DS, I’ve read both of those twice! :) But thanks for the recs!

    Softdrink, can’t wait to see your post! And don’t get me started on what I want to do to Erlend. ;)

    Jeanne, I agree-Name of the Rose is awesome! As I mentioned to DS, I’ve read it twice!

    3M, cool!

    Jenny, lol-of course I’m sure it’s good. I didn’t know anything about Norway either. And there is a bit of talk about clothes. Why not try The Wreath, which is the first book; it would be less intimdating that way.

    Andi, aww-thanks!

    Charley, once I realised that Lavransdatter=Lavaran’s Daughter, I found it easier to pronounce. ;) One of my besties in middle school was Norwegian!

    Lisa, yep-Undset does a good job of keeping the cast of characters tight, but reading it all at once meant I didn’t forget anything.

    Carrie, isn’t it great?!

    Bybee, enjoy your reread! :)

    Dailywordsandacts, I didn’t realise that about Kristin v. Kristen! And I’m glad it’s one of your faves as well. :)

    Ashley, that’s cool! I read about half of Doomsday Book in July (listened to it on CD during road trip), but I didn’t like how Willis made everyone filthy, and I was frustrated by the obtuseness of the main characters, lol. Maybe if I read it in print, I’d feel differently!

    Rachel, I think you’d like it-it’s got that classic feel to it! :)

    Tuulenhaiven, LOL-thank you!

    Justabookreader, I’ve read one Bernard Cornwell book and really enjoyed it!

    Heather, lol! I did read a Gregory book; it just isn’t my style. ;) Kristin was very different from me, and often times I didn’t agree with her thoughts, lol, but I was always curious to see what she’d do!

  34. October 28, 2009 1:12 pm

    Wow, I’m super-impressed with your ultra-fast reading! I can see how Kristin would lend itself to that, though – Undset’s prose reads so quickly and smoothly that I’ve been surprised to see the pages flying by.

  35. October 28, 2009 10:57 pm

    You did a wonderful job telling just enough of the story to get my interest anyway. I admit I was intimidated by this book, not just the size but the setting of medieval Norway. And I would have loved to participate in the group read but that just didn’t work out. But you reassured me that I’ve nothing to worry about and a wonderfuul reading experience ahead of me. It does amaze me that you read it in 7 days! That’s fantastic.

    ~ Amy

  36. October 29, 2009 9:18 am

    This sounds fascinating and it shows why I love long books. You really do live with the characters in the time period for days on end, I love doing that. So glad you choose not to tell too much. And mentioning translations is always important, the disparity in translation quality can be very wide and spoil a reading. Great review of an oldie but goodie, thanks for reviewing it.

  37. October 30, 2009 3:42 am

    I so want to read this (and fantastic design on the cover btw). As for recommendations how about ‘The Needle in the Blood’ by Sarah Bower (it’s over 400 pages, you know you want to) which is about the making of the Bayeux tapestry and the Norman conquet of Britain.

  38. October 31, 2009 8:51 pm

    Emily, thanks! I agree-her prose is very readable. :)

    Amy, thank you! There’s definitely nothing to worry about going it alone.

    Sandra, I agree-I can relax and get comfy w/ the characters in longer book mores than short ones.

    Jodie, I’ve been wanting to read Needle in the Blood for two years now! My library doesn’t have it, lol.

  39. November 11, 2009 9:35 am

    Eva, it took you a week to finish the whole three parts. It took me a week to finish just the first part. Lol.

    I didn’t feel much love for The Wreath, but still glad to see that you really enjoyed it. It makes me very hopeful about the next two parts. :D


  1. » Read-Along: “Kristen Lavransdatter, Part I: The Wreath”
  2. Travel by Books: 2009 Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair
  3. Women Unbound: a New Reading Challenge « A Striped Armchair
  4. Jenny by Sigrid Undset (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
  5. The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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