The Bridal Wreath (Kristin Lavransdatter I), by Sigrid Undset
In reading this book, I could understand why it has often been compared to some of the novels by Dostoevsky. Both writers are Christian realist authors with a strong interest in crime and punishment and questions of sin and grace. Both novels are thought of highly by many readers of Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds, and both could very easily be considered as part of the Great Books canon, although Undset’s works are far more obscure. The obscurity of these works, and the fact that the author is writing about fictional characters from fourteenth century Norway, is not a barrier to understanding this novel at all. In fact, it is a fairly straightforward novel that is accessible to anyone who cares about Norway in the Middle Ages . Admittedly, this may not be a very large group of people, but the fact that the novels remain in print in English several decades after the book was written suggests that there are at least enough people who find this novel compelling so that it can be read by the general public. I must admit I found the novel to be compelling enough to recommend and enjoy, no easy feat.
The Bridal Wreath gives the childhood and maidenhood (defined somewhat loosely) of a beautiful and impetuous young woman named Kristin Lavransdatter, whose family is from the ranks of the Norwegian rural aristocracy. The novel is not entirely without incident, as we see her younger sister injured as a child and dying young, dealing with priests as well as a local wise woman whose herbalism may cross the line into what was considered witchcraft. Kristin is beautiful and not particularly virtuous, and the novel does not try to whitewash her irresponsibility and the harm she puts her reputation in through her somewhat superficial approach to courtship and marriage. The novel demonstrates that while her father Lavran is a noble man who deserves a better fate than he has received, he is betrayed by his wife and daughter in pretty astonishing ways. The novel is pretty grimly realistic and makes for some deeply interesting reading, as the heroine is the sort of young woman that many people can identify with, whether because they are such people or because they know such people. This book is also the first part of a trilogy that looks at the life of the heroine from birth all the way to old age and possibly death–I have not made it to the end of the saga, obviously.
This is a deeply interesting and even compelling novel, even if it is not the easiest in terms of style. Undset is writing about more than the story of a beautiful and silly girl trying to marry the man of her choice and making a mess of it–that sort of tragedy is not a new one nor an uncommon one. What is remarkable, though, is the way that the novel manages to address deep concerns about political and religious legitimacy, the failures of feminism, issues of class and morality, and the perennial problems of reconciliation between people and God and people and each other. The corrosive burden of secrets and lies, and the fragility of reputation are also meaningfully explored here, and there are plenty of questions that a reader would ask about matters of free will and divine providence. Without being particularly heavy-handed, the author makes it clear that her novel has plenty of layers that are worth exploring, and when the plot flags there are at least some other considerations that make this a novel worth reading.
 See, for example: