• The Good: Ambitious historical epic told with humor, suspense, drama; loaded with themes;  expertly weaving together storylines across continents and social classes
  • The Bad: Slow to start; more London than Paris in style; perhaps too many characters
  • The Literary: A classic with many famous quotes and references

Upon his release from his 18-year-long incarceration in the Bastille prison in Paris, Doctor Alexandre Manette moves to London with his daughter Lucie, whom he’s just met. Set over a period of many years against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, this great historical novel focuses on the tribulations of one small family.

The story is divided into three parts, and the first and second parts set up the stakes of the third. In the first part, the Doctor and his adult daughter meet for the first time in Paris, facilitated by Jarvis Lorry, a bank manager, and Ernest Defarge, a wine shop owner. In the second part, French émigré Charles Darnay is on trial in London for treason against the British Crown, for which he is eventually acquitted because he resembles another man, Sydney Carton.

If this all seems a little bit random, well, it kind of is. This is a big epic novel with a large cast of characters who appear throughout the story. I admit that keeping all the characters straight, especially when read as an audiobook, is challenging, so I often consulted an online source. The events of the first and second parts are also quite slow and uneventful, especially when you know the Reign of Terror is on the horizon.

I especially enjoy the storyline of Charles Darnay’s history. Charles is French, but he’s so disgusted with his aristocratic French family that he anglicizes his mother’s maiden name and leaves for England, where he eventually meets and marries Lucie, Doctor Manette’s daughter. Even at this point in the story, Charles and Doctor Manette’s histories are entwined more than the reader knows.

The third part begins when Charles eventually returns to Paris because a friend is imprisoned. His family eventually follow, and many and varied terrible things happen against the backdrop of the revolution. I find a particular passage about the symbol of the guillotine as a replacement for the cross quite powerful and terrifying, and it’s that sort of sidebar writing in which Dickens excels.

I picked up A Tale of Two Cities now because I’ve never read it, and I was also looking for something about the French Revolution, but this is something quite different. What I like is the story of a family torn apart by something bigger than themselves. It’s about injustice and imprisonment, social anarchy and mob mentality, but mostly about how it relates to the individual.

Highly recommended as a historical literature classic. Be patient with the beginning.