A couple of months ago during The 30 Days of Books meme, I admitted that I had never read any Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol didn’t count) and to remedy that put up a poll to choose the Dickens book that would be my introduction to the Master. The winner by a narrow margin was A Tale of Two Cities.
In a way, it wasn’t my first introduction to Dickens. In Dan Simmons historical fiction thriller Drood, Dickens was one of the main characters. One of the things the character did throughout the book was give readings of different works to rapt audiences. I was intrigued by this idea and so for my “reading” I chose to listen to the audiobook. I’m glad I did, though I wasn’t sure about that at first. Initially, I found it difficult to get into the rhythm of the language and began to despair of the upcoming 21-hour commitment. Fortunately, my ear (and brain) got in sync with it and I was able to immerse myself in the story.
What did I know about AToTC going in? Well, I knew the two cities were London and Paris. I knew the opening line. I was pretty sure that it took place during the years of the French Revolution, and that it may or may not have included look-alikes…wait, wasn’t that The Prince and the Pauper or maybe I’m thinking of The Parent Trap?
Man, do I know my classics, or what?
In a way, AToTC focuses on a love triangle, with the honorable (but hopelessly boring) ex-French aristocrat Charles Darnay falling for the lovely Lucie Manette (also boring but not as boring as Charles). Also falling for her is the wry, cynical, card-playing (and alcoholic) barrister Sydney Carton – who we learn is the spitting image of Charles (see? I was right!). Now, if this book was a modern TV drama, Lucie would be friends with the nice guy, but fall for the bad-boy Carton while helping him see the errors of his ways. But this is not so in the Victorian era that Dickens was writing. And even though Lucie chooses the proper, boring guy, their love is so chaste as to be to the point of seeming abstract.
The narration moves back and forth between London (proper, orderly, even its underclass has a sense of propriety) and Paris (quickly devolving into the throes of revolution) and the story really picks up when Darnay, who has just married Lucie, goes to Paris to help an old family servant and is apprehended for being a detested aristocrat by The Revolution. Over the course of imprisonment and kangaroo-court trials, Charles is to be put to the guillotine. Can Lucie and their steadfast English friends save him? Well, it really wouldn’t be a far, far better thing if I gave away the ending, would it?
I was, of course, impressed with Dickens’ control and use of language. As I was listening, there were probably dozens of times when I wished I had an audio “highlighter” to save one knock-your-socks-off sentence or another. Usually, I just sat back and let the prose just carry me. In particular, I found his descriptions of the Revolution particularly chilling without being gruesome.
But really, where AToTC surprised and delighted me the most was Dickens’ nailing of human nature, peoples’ descriptions and their motivations. The cynical snarkiness, the putting on airs for propriety, the rising up to be honorable or giving in to the basest of temptations, the hypocrisy of zealots and the crippling disparity between the rich and the poor were spot-on. In fact, put different clothes on these characters and they would have been perfectly at home in the 21st century.
Except for that chaste stuff, I suppose.
Four stars out of five.