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The Wreath (Kristin Lavransdatter, #1) by Sigrid Undset

The Wreath - Sigrid Undset, Tiina Nunnally

This trilogy has been on my to-read list for years, but motivating myself to read a 1100-page classic novel isn’t easy. Finally I decided to simply read the first book, which is just under 300 pages long. It worked, and got me interested enough that I’m now halfway through the second. Turns out this really is more a three-volume novel than a trilogy; while the first has a complete plot arc and can be read alone, they must be read in order because there’s no filling in new readers later on.

Kristin Lavransdatter tells the life story of a woman in 14th century Norway. The books were published in the 1920s, and the early English translation is full of archaic language that makes difficult reading, but the newer Nunnally translation is excellent, fluid and accessible. This first book relates Kristin’s life as a child and a young woman, falling in love with the wrong man while engaged to someone her family chose for her. Nowadays this a well-worn plotline in historical fiction, but Kristin Lavransdatter predates those tropes, and the strong character development keeps it from ever feeling cliché. It’s apparently been said that Kristin was the first real woman in literature, and while I wouldn’t discount all 19th-century heroines so quickly, she’s certainly a realistic and nuanced character, nothing like the insipid protagonists that define so much of today’s historical fiction.

Meanwhile, the book has an engaging plot, with more drama than I expected, and its medieval world is detailed and three-dimensional, incorporating a great deal of information about the lifestyle, religion and history of the times. I can see that Undset thoroughly researched the time and place, without compromising the storytelling, and the characters all feel like real products of their times. All-around, this is a good book, and much more enjoyable that I expected upon sampling the first paragraph (like many classics, it begins with a brief history of a family and their lands, before getting to the good stuff). Recommended.