A Tale of Two Cities
By: Charles Dickens
My Rating: FIVE OUT OF FIVE STARS
Best for: 16 and up
Come join the club!
Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities might have been the hardest book I’ve ever read–and I’ve read a lot of hard books. I don’t mean the content was hard. I mean the words were hard! But, getting through the words was part of the battle, and it made conquering this brilliant tale of historical fiction–written 163 years ago about events that happened 233 years ago–so much sweeter in the end.
Tip 1: Read it. It’s worth the effort.
You don’t review classics, you just take them from what they offer and share how they impacted you. I finished A Tale of Two Cities, and oh my goodness. I am most certainly impacted.
Aside from it’s famous opening line–(Let’s say it together!) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…–I knew nothing about A Tale of Two Cities. I think I knew it was about London and Paris? Maybe? But that’s about it. Friends told me I needed to read it. They assured me it was the greatest book ever written. I wanted to read more classics this year. Dickens was a gap for me. Everything fit. This was it. It was time. So, I jumped in…
…and quickly realized I should have waded into the shallow end first. I had no trouble with A Christmas Carol, the only other Dickens I can claim. This book was really hard to read!
Tip 2: Use SparkNotes.
The first few chapters were rough, and had me questioning the sanity of my friends. Once the story got going and the characters were introduced (and with help from SparkNotes and my Kindle’s onboard dictionary), I got the hang of Victorian Era Historical Fiction. Plus now I’m super smart, so…
Tip 3: Don’t give up.
I’m glad I pushed through, and I’m glad I went in perfectly tabula rasa. I was so, so joyously surprised with what I discovered. Dickens’s tale–the one he, himself called his best–is a complex story of love and redemption set into the backdrop of the French Revolution. As a historic event, the French Revolution is terribly complex, and simultaneously an example of humanity’s highest and lowest moments. From the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, I found it perfectly fascinating to read the history of the events from the perspective of an 1860’s Londoner who was looking backwards into his own history.
Dickens characters rule the day. When I say the story is about love, I’m talking about the kind of deep, abiding, selfless, true love between friends, father and daughter, husband and wife. The really powerful kind of love. When I say the story is about redemption, I’m talking about the basement to ceiling, zero to hero, all is lost to all is found, analogous to Jesus Christ kind of redemption. The really powerful kind. This is the stuff amazing characters are made of, and these are some of the best you’re going to find in all literature. It’s no wonder Charles Dickens was the most popular author of his day and his stories have endured to ours!
I was intrigued by the acceptance and care given by family and friends to another who dealt with mental illness. This, in a story from 1859! The treatment felt out of time, and the compassion was inspiring.
I can’t help but make connections to the book that now needs to slide over and make room on my greatest of all time shelf: Les Miserable. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Les Miserable (1862) were published 3 years apart. One was written by a Londoner, the other by a Parisian. Both tell powerful stories of love and redemption during the French Revolution. Both feature hero figures who begin as low as can be and are triumphant in the end. Both depict a father/daughter relationship that makes this dad of daughters get misty eyed with memory and hope. I used to have one favorite book-character of all time. Now I have two, and Jean Valjean shares the title with Sydney Carton. The biggest difference? It took Victor Hugo 1200 pages. Dickens got it done in 430.
The coincidences are uncanny, and they’re making this book nerd lose sleep. Sheesh. I need to write a paper. Then I need to get a life.
Tip 4: The first rule of book club? No spoilers!
More than anything else, I love stories that surprise me with the unexpected, and I was shocked to discover more twists, red herrings, and intricate foreshadowing packed into this wonderful story than any book I’ve read. I laughed, I cried, I had to pick my jaw off the floor, and when I was done I wanted to start over and look for all the clues I know were there but missed the first time. So read it, and make sure you pass it to your friends. But reading A Tale of Two Cities gives to access to a pretty elite club, and the first rule of Book Club? Don’t spoil the book!
Tip 5: It gets easier as it goes.
A Tale of Two Cities was a profound reading experience. It was a hard book to read, and I suspect that deters many. I found it got easier as I went along, and by the end I was relying on SparkNotes less and less. If you have an interest in being profoundly moved…if you are looking for a book challenge…if you want to add a feather to your cap…if you’ve tried before but given up…if you haven’t but you want to…if you want to know what “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” actually means…read A Tale of Two Cities.
Come join the club.
No content concerns as far as sexual content or language, but there is non-gory violence and it’s super tough to read. Best for ambitious 16 and up.