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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens It was the best of a far, far, FAR better thing that I do, than I have ever done.

I know that’s lame, but I’m out of ideas for an opening paragraph.

This is my second reading of A Tale of Two Cities and I doubt it will be my last. A lot of people who habitually read for pleasure probably would not consider reading this book because it is required reading in many schools and it would seem like anathema to a good time to read it when you don’t have to. This is unfortunate because I think this — like all Dickens novels — works best if you just read it naturally without trying to analyze the hell out of it on every page. I doubt that was Dickens’ intent.

I was considering writing a little synopsis which is part of the standard review structure for me, but it feels like summarizing* something like [b: Frankenstein|18490|Frankenstein|Mary Shelley|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1381512375s/18490.jpg|4836639], superfluous. The characters are worth looking into though, because Dickens always populate his novels with colorful, memorable characters; as well as a few flat ones, who are usually the “good guys”. A Tale of Two Cities has, at least, two characters that are practically legends of fiction.

First and foremost is poor Sydney Carton who — in spite of a boxy name — is the true hero of the story. Throughout the novel he seems like a side character, he even views himself as a supernumerary individual among his “friends”, who are more like people he likes to visit, though they don’t really know why he often shows up or what to do with him.
“Well! At any rate you know me as a dissolute dog, who has never done any good, and never will.”
Sydney has no self-respect or any sense of self-worth but redeems himself in an epic manner by the end of the book. He is fascinating if a little unbelievable in how far he would go to serve the love of his life, Lucie Manette.

Lucie comes straight from Dickens’ stock of impossibly angelic pretty women who would rather die than say boo to a goose (which is a crazy pastime in any event). She has very little in the way of personality or agency and seems ill-suited to the much deeper Carton (I feel another pun coming on). Charles Darnay — the dull “romantic lead” of the novel — suits her much better, but at least he galvanizes the story when he chooses to go to Paris at the worst possible time for someone of his background, and without making any precaution. Lucie’s Dad, Doctor Manette, is marginally more interesting than her daughter because when he gets very upset he does not hit anybody, instead, he shuffles off to his room and start cobbling shoes! This makes sense to me, if everybody could be like this, instead of wars and terrorisms we would have mountains of shoes. Which do you prefer?

This (somehow) brings me to Madame Therese Defarge, Dickens’ most badass antagonist.

(Thank you Video Spark Notes for the art).
I hesitate to use the word “villain” here because she is not evil per se. She has her reasons for going on a murderous rampage and hacking people’s heads off with a knife, it is all done in the name of the French republic as far as she is concerned.

“Her husband's destiny,” said Madame Defarge, with her usual composure, "will take him where he is to go, and will lead him to the end that is to end him. That is all I know.”

The best thing about her is that — when she is not off exterminating aristocrats — she is always doing some scary knitting.** I have gone on too long about the characters I think, I’d just like to mention Miss Pross, Lucie’s governess who is almost as badass as Madame Defarge, and is a great foil for her.

These colorful characters make the novel for me, the plot is only exciting because we care about the characters. In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens created a microcosm of life during the French Revolution and shows as that even with the heart in the right place much evil is still perpetrated in the name of good. That still rings true today, unfortunately. Dickens' prose is — of course — awe-inspiring. He effortlessly switches from sardonic, to comical, to lyrical from paragraph to paragraph. There are numerous witty or pithy lines you can quote from, on practically every page. Having said that, the language is not particularly challenging to read, if you read contemporary fiction regularly I can't imagine why you would have any difficulty reading Dickens, the English language has not mutated that much since Victorian times.

A Tale of Two Cities is a book I can recommend to anybody, but especially people who dismiss reading it because they had to read it at school. That is no reason to deprive yourself of a book this enjoyable.


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* I’m not allowed to use the verb synopsize (hi Cecily!)

** I have met a lot of women who are a bit like Madame Defarge actually, well, they like to knit, but they don’t go on murderous rampages as far as I know. I did say a bit.

Notes
Some people say A Tale of Two Cities lacks the humour of Dickens’ other novels. I beg to differ, Miss Pross is always good for a laugh and Madame Defarge’s knitting and the secret signals she sends through her hat are pretty mirthful. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

This reread was done mostly through Librivox's free audiobook, read by Paul Adams, a little overly dramatic at times but a good and fun rendition. Thank you!