I first read A Tale of Two Cities when I was fourteen years old for my freshman year English class. I can distinctly remember sitting on the couch in the family room, contentedly reading and finishing the book a good week before we were supposed to. I fell in love with it then and there.
Ten years passed and recently I heard that a cousin of mine who is in high school himself was having trouble with the book and my uncle wanted me to tutor him. I was happy to do it but I realized that I should probably reread the book myself as years had passed and I only barely remembered the plot.
A Tale of Two Cities tells the story of the Manette family and those around them in the period before and during the French Revolution. At the beginning of the novel, Doctor Manette is freed from the Bastille after eighteen years of imprisonment. He is reunited with his daughter who is eighteen herself and thought her father dead. Years pass and they find themselves tangled up in the dealings of Charles Darnay, a young Frenchman who is on trial for espionage against England. Different events in the lives of all the characters fluctuate and coalesce until the dramatic conclusion, set against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror.
Now, I'm not a huge Dickens fan. I think he can tell a good story and create some interesting characters but he is ridiculously wordy. Now, of course, we all know why he was wordy (he was paid by the word) but that doesn't make it any easier to get through. A Tale of Two Cities is one of his shorter novels, the version I read was only 270 pages. Most Dickens are monsters. Thus, I think it's actually a pretty good first Dickens, a chance to stick your toe in and see if you like it.
The other great thing about Tale is that it is actually a compelling story and is tightly woven so that every detail fits in to the end and there's no meandering through the middle of the novel, as Dickens is prone to. Although the sentences take their time to get to the point, the novel is quite atmospheric and filled with forward momentum. Years are passed by in a few paragraphs to get on to the next dramatic point. There's no lingering.
Of course, the other thing I love about Tale is Sydney Carton, one of the characters. A once promising young lawyer that has had too much adventure and drink, he ends up taking the case of Charles Darnay when we first meet him. He and Darnay become foils for each other, perfect reflections with opposite characteristics. Although Darnay may be the better man in theory, I have been in love with Carton since I first finished the book. He's the anti-hero, the man who wishes he could do better but knows his best days are behind him. Carton absolutely shines in the second half of the book. He is definitely the best part of the narrative.
I cried the first time I finished Tale of Two Cities and I cried this time, too. The last two chapters have some absolutely beautiful moments that are poetically written. The part where Sydney takes the woman's hand, Sydney's thoughts that end the novel. That is what story writing should be about, moments like those.
If you're a Dickens fan but never made it around to Tale, I'm sure you'll love it. If you're someone who never really read Dickens, give it a try. It's a shorter read and a good story. It may be a bit wordy but it has good things to say.