I don't know if it's cheating or overachieving to smuggle in a trilogy as one selection in the Back to the Classics challenge, but I will do it for Kristin Lavransdatter. If I had a cabin and a pot of soup and Kristin Lavransdatter, then that would be the best vacation ever.
So it is hard with such a book to sum up or critique. I don't read Kristin Lavransdatter; I move temporarily to 14th-century Norway. All the people and the life are so real, shown without romanticism or grotesqueness. The people live in their own world, unastonished at their own life for all its strangeness to us, yet still as real and ordinary as anyone you might know.
The Bridal Wreath gives a bit of background on Kristin's family and then tells her growing up years, from early childhood to her wedding. Kristin's doting and devout father, Lavrans, is a well-respected knight and a skilled farm manager; her mother is dedicated but melancholy, weighed down by many infant losses and a dark secret. In due course Kristin's father arranges her a good marriage to Simon, a perfectly suitable but rather boring young man, but Kristin is not so sure. At Simon's suggestion, she spends a year at a convent school in the south to get a bit more worldliness. What she gets instead is an introduction to Erlend, a dashing, higher-ranking, and not all that young man who is, in more than just Lavrans' estimation, not good for much but seducing women.
Well, things go much as one would expect in any century. Or again, not, because no one here is a stock character. Even the minor characters, like the saintly Brother Edvin, or the enigmatic witch Lady Aashild, are very real. The actions of a 28 year old who seduces a naive 16-year-old girl out of a convent to a brothel are as despicable to the medieval Norwegians as they would be if it started in an online chat room today; yet Erlend does genuinely care for Kristin, after his own weak-willed fashion. And while Kristin learns to lie and sneak and is as utterly short-sighted in romance as a teenage girl can be, yet her devotion has its own greatness and beauty to it.
Two quotes from either end of the influences in Kristin's life:
Lady Aashild: "In this world they call him a fool who wastes his heritage that he may make merry in the days of his youth. As to that, each man may deem as he lists. But that man only do I call a fool and a very dolt who rues his bargain after it is made . . . "
Brother Edvin: "There is no man nor woman, Kristin, who does not love and fear God, but 'tis because our hearts are divided twixt love of God and fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in life and death. For if a man had not a yearning after God and God's being, he would thrive in hell, and 'twould be we alone who would not understand that there he had gotten what he desired."