Charles Dickens is not my favourite novelist by a wide margin. At high school, I found Great Expectations and Oliver Twist underwhelming. Although I loved Bleak House when I read it at university, my positive reaction to that novel did not inspire me to read any more Dickens. And I haven’t done so until now. Tackled as a buddy read with members of the Mt TBR Challenge Group, I listened to this novel as an audiobook very capably narrated by Anton Lesser.
For quite a long time, I thought that this would get a three star rating. I liked the prose well enough (Victorian verbosity doesn’t particularly bother me) and the plot was reasonably engaging. However, throughout Books I and II I found myself distracted by the novel’s weaknesses. For me, the salient weaknesses are the flat characterization (with some exceptions - the chilling Madame Defarge, for example), a blonde and blue-eyed doll of a heroine who does little more than look beautiful and inspire adoration, choppy pacing, heavy-handed symbolism and over-reliance on coincidence to advance the plot. Further, although it has the French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror as its background, this is not a novel for anyone wanting to acquire reliable historical information.
As I moved into Book III, the pace picked up considerably, although I still had difficulty with the implausibility of parts of the narrative and coincidences which made me want to roll my eyes. And then it happened. The narrative had a major injection of suspense which kept me glued to my iPod until the end. And when the novel ended, I wept. Actually, I came pretty close to sobbing, even though I knew what was going to happen and had known from the beginning. I love it when a novel makes me cry. That reaction, coming as it did at the very end, overshadowed the weaknesses which I thought would stop me loving the work.
Dickens is not going to become my favourite writer. He won't even be my favourite Victorian writer, as I much prefer the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins. In this novel, I wish that Dickens had done a better job with the main characters: I wish that Charles Darnay had been a little less insipid, that Lucie Manette had been a little less perfect and that there had been a little more of Sydney Carton. However, whatever the weaknesses in the characters and the writing, the dual themes of love and sacrifice – and the final scene - will remain with me for a long time. And Dickens made me cry, which has tipped my rating of the novel from three to four stars.