The first book in Sigrid Undset's Nobel Prize winning Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, this is the story of a young woman's coming of age in 14th century Norway. The title The Wreath refers to her marriage wreath, or symbolically her virginity; the image of a wreath runs throughout the book, starting when she is a very little child and she sees a magical woman in the forest holding a wreath, beckoning to her. Eventually, after she has given herself to a man who is most definitely not her kind fiance Simon, she begins to see the wreath motif everywhere; her guilt haunts her, just as, we later learn, it has always haunted her mother (who was raped before she was married). Although there are parallels between her life and her mother's, Kristin made the conscious decision to give her body and her love to Erlend. Another theme throughout the novel is that of paying for one's sins; Kristin's mother loses almost all of her children and blames herself for the "sin" of her youth; Kristin believes that the child she is carrying at the end of the novel will be deformed because of her sins; a woman who supposedly cast a spell upon a man to make him her husband must always live with his melancholy; however, these atonements seem to be almost created by the women who they happen to. It's hard to say whether or not the author values the sins that these women commit, but she certainly values the strength of character needed to live with them. This is as much a feminist novel as its time period allows, and the women are strong and mostly capable of making their own decisions.

I found this book to be a lot like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre in some respects; the sometimes soap-opera-ish nature of the plot line, as well as the strong, independent heroine and the strong, Byronic hero with a dark past combine to create strong similarities. However, Kristin's story seems to me to far superior to Jane's. The reason why I read this book is because Connie Willis, my favorite author, said that it was her favorite book in an interview; the reason why I loved this book was the intricate and accurate historical rendering of medieval Norway. This attention to fact is noticeable without being cumbersome; there's a reason why Undset won the Nobel Prize for this. The story is timeless, but the setting is perfectly historical; the symbolism is fitting, without being unsubtle; the issues addressed (such as religion, government, and the meaning of love) are all valid concerns today (and in the 20's, when Undset was writing the three-part novel; there are strong parallels between the religious and governmental conflicts of both the 14th century and the 1920's).

I recommend the Penguin Classics edition for a better translation, although this is of course a personal opinion.

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