Let's review a book!
When I decided, after finishing with my reading of all the Sherlock Holmes books (apart from Hound of the Baskervilles), to venture into the works of Charles Dickens, I just knew I would read A Tale of Two Cities. Why? Because everyone knows the opening line but none of the story. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
Well the two cities in question are London and Paris, but this story really doesn't deal with the cities during the French revolution, no it focuses on a core set of characters...during the French revolution. So having read it I...can honestly understand why hardly anyone has read the story. Most of it is just so boring and doesn't hold up so well. The first two-thirds of the book were to purely establish the characters and it did so very poorly. Honestly, the book would have been better off if most of the faffing around in the beginning had been cut out. (I just checked and it turned out this book was not originally written as a novel, but as a serialisation, in that context it makes sense why it flounders but it's still annoying.)
Now of course there are going to be lots of spoilers in my review and I really don't care if there are spoilers because this book has been around for over 150 years. It starts off with Jarvis Lorry, a bank worker, telling Lucie Manette, a French emigrant who has lived in England all her life, that her father has been found. So they go to Paris, meet a man called Ernest Defarge (also meeting his wife) and find the hidden yet obviously traumatised Alexandre Manette, who goes back with them. In London, 5 years later, we meet Charles Darnay, who is being tried in court for the false accusation that he had traded British secrets to French opposition forces in America. Lucie and her father were witnesses in the court and we meet his two lawyers, Mr Stryver and Sydney Carton. Sydney proves Charles' innocence by pointing out they look alike, confounding the accuser and blemishing the credibility of the accusing statement. After this court case ends, we follow the Defarges as they do their various underground deeds while also seeing that everyone has fallen in love with Lucie but Charles is the one that gets to marry her. Mr Stryver reveals that he is getting on and just needs a wife, so had focused on Lucie in a simple 'she'll do nicely'. As for why Sydney loves her...I never understood. This was just so badly conveyed. Anyway, we also find out Charles Darnay had another name, because he is actually a French aristocrat who had renounced his title, hating the tyranny and suffering placed on the French peasantry.
So the exciting bit happens when the French revolution finally takes place. The Defarges are among those raiding the Bastille. Later on, Charles receives a letter from his former servant, telling him that the servant has been imprisoned and asked for Charles' help in getting released. Charles, being an absolute idiot, goes to France alone and without telling anyone, except through some letters he leaves behind. So he gets locked up on account of all emigrants being banned under revolution rule and the Manettes have to go and rescue him.
Now this final third of the book is truly gripping. It describes in grisly gritty detail just how frenzied and frightening France became under the Reign of Terror: the way the guards act, the way the trials worked, how terrible the prisons were and just how sad it is to see the ennobled have everything taken away from them. Of course, those in power also executed anyone suspected of being a traitor to the new state, so the end of the book sees the execution of various ex-aristocrats plus a humble poor seamstress. It really gave the sense that no one was truly safe. It also struck me as off that, in the wake of the 99% protests that there was no movie adaptation made of this book, since it really drills in (using a real historical event) just what can happen when the rage of a large mob goes unchecked, especially if they're allowed to retaliate against a hated elite without any real thought behind the matter. Our introduction to the imprisoned aristocrats reveals them to be very depressed yet remaining civilised and polite. Very poignant.
But even here there are problems that show up. It was very near the end of the book when Madame Defarge was described as beautiful. Really? Why couldn't this fact have been revealed earlier? The way that looking at certain characters made them afraid of her gave me an image of an older, plumpier, sterner woman. And I still don't understand why Sydney Carton cared so much for the Manette family. It also turned out he is meant to be a beloved anti-hero but this also feels like it came out of nowhere, since most of the focus on Sydney was how pissed-off and drunk he is a lot of the time. He had apparently committed some very appalling acts in his life but we have no insight as to what he did! And another thing, why are we allowed insight into the life of Jerry Cruncher, who spends some of his time robbing graves and beating his wife? Would you believe he ends up one of the more heroic guys in the end?
Everyone in the Manette family does manage to escape in the end, but it is very clear they are in a lot of danger when they do. I really don't know if I can call this book one of Dickens' best, I'm not even sure I can recommend it. I do wonder if I should recommend the book to people, but to only read certain bits of it, just so that they don't fall asleep.