I expected to like this volume even more than the previous one, because in general I prefer content I’ve seen less often, and the story of a woman making her way as a wife and mother is much less common in my reading than the story of her falling in love and trying to avoid arranged marriage. But I actually prefer the first volume. The Wreath has its almost melodramatic moments, but it definitely kept me interested, while The Wife – covering about 15 years of Kristin’s married life – slows that down. There’s a lot about death, childbirth, illness, and Kristin obsessing about her sins. I know, it’s the Middle Ages. But I wanted this book to be over more than I wanted to read it.
That isn’t to deny its many positive qualities. Undset has clearly done a thorough job of researching the time period, and brings it to life. The writing is good, with beautiful descriptions of the natural world. The characters are believable as real people and as products of their culture. Kristin and Erlend’s marriage turns out realistically, basically what you’d expect from the first book, and that depiction is a rare achievement in fiction, where protagonists’ marriages are usually either near-perfect bliss or utterly terrible (I would call this couple’s marriage a fairly bad one but am not sure they would say the same). Like the first volume, this one ends in an interesting place – it picks up with some major events in the last 75 pages or so and left me curious enough about the fallout that I may still pick up the third.