A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Digital Audiobook narrated by Simon Vance
Published by Penguin Books on November 1, 1859
Genres: Classics, Historical, Historical Fiction
Length: 489 pages or 13 hours, 39 minutes
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After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
I had to do something with this book I don’t think I’ve ever done before. At 61%, I heaved a heavy sigh, and went to read the plot summary on SparkNotes. I really didn’t want to DNF this book, but I was completely lost in what was going on. I know, I know! It’s cheating! But I wasn’t already familiar with A Tale of Two Cities, and once I looked up the plot summaries, the story fell together and I understood a bit more of what was going on.
A Tale of Two Cities is fairly typical in style to other Victorian authors. Character development is missing, leaving the reader to accept of slew of facts largely related to their relations or estates. A stretch of the imagination helps, and so does the narrator. I think Victorian literature is so successful in its film adaptations because actors bring these otherwise flat characters to life. Shakespeare is much the same.
As I said in the first paragraph, the plot was difficult for me. I know very little about the French Revolution and it took a while for me to put two-and-two together and figure out what was going on. This is not a failure of the book, and I do want to emphasize that. It’s the nature of, again, the literature of this era. Charles Dickens writes with so much flourish and chatter. There’s an emphasis on dialogue and internal monologues. As such, much of the atmosphere is inferred by the readers knowledge of the era. All in all, I find myself respecting Dickens, but not really enjoying the books.
We follow a few different story lines – at the beginning there is the retrieval of the wrongfully imprisoned Dr. Manette. Once we are well familiar with the Manettes, there’s the courting of Lucie, and finally her marriage. It is a story of the Manette family – the restoration of the doctor, the love of Lucie, and again the restoration of Charles, Lucie’s husband. I think I would feel more invested in the story if I related to the doctor, Lucie, or Charles in any way, but this is a narrative and the characters are what they are. The backdrop of the French Revolution could be resplendent, but the writing is not quite so exciting.
The works of Charles Dickens are so well loved, even into modernity. While I enjoy A Christmas Carol, much of my attachment to the story is from nostalgia and familiarity. This is the second novel (of three) that I have not enjoyed, and it makes me hesitate to delve into such works as Great Expectations and David Copperfield. I’m not against people loving Dickens, or embracing these stories. But I am, frankly, bored. Not all classics are for everyone!
All this said, I would most likely watch a film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. The story wasn’t bad, I just had zero investment in the characters and that translated over to my enjoyment of the whole book.
I am interested enough in Oliver Twist that perhaps I will give Dickens another chance.
Best three out of four?
Have you seen a good film version of this book? There was a movie in the 90s called “A Simple Wish” where the dad was auditioning for a musical adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities”, but that’s the closest I’ve seen! Let me know your favorite in the comments and I’ll check it out!