The final volume of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is perhaps the best of the three. Judging by the titles and cover images, I had guessed that Kristin would spend this book as a widowed nun and that the book would be mostly about her grieving and repenting her sins. Fortunately, that’s a long way from the truth – the plot picks up again after the slower and more contemplative second volume, balancing its detailed portrayal of medieval life with plenty of juicy drama.
But the heart of the story is Kristin’s struggle for fulfillment in her role as wife and mother. As a modern reader, it can be easy to get frustrated with Kristin’s silent resentment of Erlend – you want her to either deal with the problems in the marriage or move on. But of course, she can’t move on and without the possibility of divorce as an escape valve, I wonder if addressing the problems with Erlend head-on might be too dangerous; if they can’t successfully resolve them, then bringing them into the open might only make their home life less tolerable. At any rate, their relationship continues to be as messy and destructive as ever. Meanwhile, in the shadow of their parents’ tumultuous marriage, their sons are growing into young men, and Kristin’s influence in their lives is on the wane, to her distress.
Others have found this volume depressing, and yes, it’s a bit melancholy. The ending is a sad one, though appropriate, and artistically (and historically) sound. But I enjoyed reading it nonetheless; the prose had a calming effect, as I was absorbed into the lives of Undset’s three-dimensional characters and the richness of their world. Having finished, I’m sorry it’s over.