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Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath – Book Review

kristinAll around grew such a profusion of the finest  pink tufts of flowers called valerian; they were much redder and more beautiful here next to the mountain stream than back home near the river. Then Kristin picked some blossoms and carefully bound them together with blades of grass until she had the loveliest, pinkest, and most tightly woven wreath. The child pressed it down on her hair and ran over to the pool to see how she looked, now that she was adorned like a grown-up maiden about to go off to a dance. – from Kristin Lavransdatter, page 19 –

“Look at yourself now, Kristin,” said Fru Aashild, and Kristin bent over the basin. She saw her own face rise up, white, from the water; it came so close that she could see the golden crown above. So many light and dark shadows played all around her reflection – there was something she was just about to remember – and suddenly she felt as if she would faint away. – from Kristin Lavransdatter, page 275 –

Sigrid Undset’s huge novel Kristin Lavransdatter is separated into three separate “books.” The Wreath makes up the first “book” and opens with Kristin as a young child traveling with her father through the beautiful countryside of medieval Norway. Kristin dotes on her father – and he clearly has a special bond with his eldest daughter after losing three sons in infancy. Early on, Undset establishes a father-daughter relationship which is special and which sets the tone for what is to come.

The Wreath is a coming of age story which follows Kristin’s maturation from a child into a young woman in her late teens. Along the way, she must reconcile her ambivalence for a betrothal to a man she does not choose,  and deal with guilt and remorse around a love affair with a man her father cannot accept. Kristin’s infatuation with Erlend Nikulausson (a man nearly 15 years her senior who has had an extended affair with a married woman and been excommunicated from the Catholic Church) provides the drama and conflict in the book. Kristin is easily seduced by the handsome Erlend with dire consequences for her. As her close relationship with her father Lavrans begins to deteriorate, Kristin clings to the hope of happiness with Erlend despite her fears and doubts.

Sigrid Undset’s writing is fluid and beautifully reveals the wild countryside of Norway in the 14th century. The Wreath is filled with period detail of the food, dress, and architecture of this time in history. Romantic, dramatic and resonating with unexpected crises, The Wreath captivated me from the first page and drew me into Kristin’s life effortlessly.

In many ways, this first book in Undset’s novel is a study of women’s rights (or perhaps their lack of rights) in a culture which saw women as the possessions of first their fathers, and then their husbands. Kristin is faced with a decision to either abide by her father’s choice of husband or risk shaming him. Torn between her own desires and the moral laws set by her culture and religion, Kristin wrestles with guilt, shame and anger. Early in The Wreath Kristin is nearly raped along a deserted road, yet she is afraid to seek the help of her family for fear of being seen as a slut. Later, this episode leads to her spending a year in a convent until the rumors in her small town die down.

Many readers have commented on Undset’s tendency toward melodrama, but I found this a realistic look at what life must have been like for women during medieval times. Their lives were very much defined by the men whom they married, and lineage and wealth all played a part in who would become their spouses. The reliance on religion as a guideline for behavior, and the harsh punishment when women veered away from these moral laws, also regulated their everyday lives. The Wreath is full of romance, but also emphasizes the inherent dangers of romantic connections for women who dared to step outside the rigid structure which had been established for them. Although Kristin is not wholly likable by the end of The Wreath, I found myself feeling empathy for her.

I loved this first “book” of Kristin Lavransdatter and am eager to continue the saga in Part II: The Wife.

Highly recommended for those readers who enjoy historical fiction.

5stars

**I had originally intended to read along with other bloggers who are tackling this book together…that read-a-long is being hosted here and here… But I have dropped behind schedule a bit. I encourage you to visit Emily’s and Richard’s blog posts about The Wreath, and check out the links to other bloggers who are doing the formal read-a-long.

10 Comments

  1. December 4, 2009    

    I too was struck by the role of women. Kristen was pretty strong willed though, and managed to get her way. She was like a teenager, ruled by hormones. I imagine that throughout history, people were forever being ruled by their passions, going against the ruling church’s views. It was just more shaming when it occurred, not less frequent.

    I’m at about the same place as you Wendy – I finished The Bridal Wreath a few weeks ago. I have the next book out from the library,but I think I’ll try to read it over Christmas holidays. I wont’ look at the last book until into the new year. So, you’re not behind, you are staying back with me:)

  2. December 4, 2009    

    Wow, a five star read! I love a good coming of age story and the fact that it’s set in a different culture is an added bonus. This is going on my wish list.

  3. December 5, 2009    

    I would love to get my hands on this book. As a matter of fact, I will. Not only did you give it a five-star rating but the whole premise sounds really like something I could enjoy. I am an HF fan but never read anything about Norway and it will add nicely to my interests.

  4. December 5, 2009    

    I’ve seen this 3-part collection of books on the shelf at work, but haven’t even bothered to skim the back covers to see what they’re about. Thanks to you, I’m adding the books to my TBR list. I love historical fiction and I know I want to at least read The Wreath, if not the other two. The Wreath sounds like a great book to discuss, so I think I’ll make a note to suggest it to my book club. Thanks, Wendy. I love your 5-star recommendations! 🙂

  5. December 5, 2009    

    I read the first book in the trilogy (the same translation as you; I found it very reader-friendly), then fell behind in my reading! I love the idea of reading this somewhat imposing book as part of a group.

  6. December 6, 2009    

    Thank you! Someone else who agrees with me!

    You’re right: Kristin is not an entirely likeable character, but she is a very realistic one. One of the points I’ve been making with my Kristin Lavransdatter posts is that historical fiction all too often features heroines whose attitudes and behavior are too modern for their time periods. Kristin, by contrast, feels very true to her era. (Although I feel that Undset could have toned down the melodrama and all the descriptions of how beautiful Kristin is.) Your review is the most balanced one I’ve read.

  7. December 6, 2009    

    Raidergirl: Oh, you have made me feel better that I am not the only straggler here! I think you’re right – passion has always ruled behavior…but in Kristin’s time it was considered much more sinful!

    Kathy: I absolutely love historical fiction – and this one is really captivating. Hope you’ll like it!

    Lilly: If you’re an HF fan, you will be sure to enjoy this one. Don’t let the size of the trilogy turn you away – it is worth the read.

    Les: Glad I got you interested in reading this book…it really is a classic! I do think it would be fun to discuss in a book club.

    Dawn: Yes I agree – very reader friendly. It is not too late to join in!

    El Fay: I am planning to get out and read other reviews of The Wreath over the next few days – glad to hear you and I agree! I do think Undset captured the time period in which the book was set – women were quite melodramatic (swooning and all that!) during medieval times!

  8. December 8, 2009    

    Wow, I’m glad you loved this one so much! I’ll have to check it out.

  9. December 8, 2009    

    I read this book back in 2005. So many people love this book. I loved the scenery and setting but I found the story okay. I didn’t enjoy it enough to continue the series. Gosh Wendy, a book we don’t totally aree on. LOL!

  10. December 9, 2009    

    Swapna: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts!

    Teddy: Sorry you didn’t enjoy the story. I am now nearly finished with Book 2 (The Wife) and have not enjoyed it as much as The Wreath…it is very heavy on the religion in Book 2 and I’m finding that a bit tiresome. So although we disagree on The Wreath…we might be closer in opinion on The Wife 🙂

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