Thursday, October 28, 2010

Books in the Bubble: Kristin Lavransdatter, my favorite novels!

About a decade ago, I was reading tons of doctrinal and theological works, and I had no interest in novels.

Then one day, I was watching an EWTN program called Bookmark. They were discussing a novel (actually a trilogy) about a 14th century Norwegian girl named Kristin Lavransdatter. I was especially interested to hear that the author, Sigrid Undset, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for this body of work. (Although Undset was not a Catholic when she wrote Kristin's story, she did later convert to Catholicism.)

Now, normally I would not be interested in a decades-old historical novel set in a country to which I have no connection and in an era with which I am not acquainted. However, there was something compelling about the thought of following a young Catholic girl as she transforms -- physically, emotionally and spiritually -- through all the stages of her life.

From what was being discussed on the TV show, I knew I would relate to this fictional character both as a woman and at the level and themes of our shared Catholic faith.

Plus, it seemed super cool and important to read a work that had won a Nobel Prize!!!!!  :)

Soooo, I bought the first book. And it sat on my shelf for about two years.

Finally, when I grew weary of doctrinal books, I picked it up. Not only did it live up to the expectations that I'd set for it, it exceeded them. The seven hundred years that separated Kristin's world from mine melted away. I quickly read the next two books in the series, and I can tell you that I've never been sadder to say good-bye to a literary character. In fact, I think I refused to say good-bye, as Kristin (and old Norway) has stayed with me through the past eight years. The minute I finished the books, I knew I would re-read them.

Kristin's story is divided into the three main epochs of her life:

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath. The story of Kristin from childhood up through her engagement.
Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath (Penguin Classics)

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife. Kristin as a wife and mother.
Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife (Penguin Classics)

Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross. The conclusion and redemption of Kristin's life.
Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross (Penguin Classics)

**If you decided to read the trilogy, make sure you get the Tiina Nunnally translation (from the original Norwegian).

Let's just say that Kristin is not a perfect woman. Like all of us, she is very real, flawed and complex. Although I connected with Kristin profoundly, I know at least two people who couldn't get past her deeper character flaws to embrace her. (But they still loved the books).

After reading Undset's masterpieces, I became enamored again with novels, and specifically Catholic novels.

Good literature enriches the mind and the soul, so if any of you have good novel recommendations, please let me know!



  1. I looooooove the Outlander series, and while the main characters are Catholic, they are most definitely not perfect Catholics, so beware. :-)

  2. I love this novel. I think it's Undset's best. It is so real that it almost hurts to read. The Brothers K had the same effect on me. How do author's do that? Masters of human nature!

  3. Another BRILLIANT post! I'd like to sit next to you and squeeze out everything you know and like. So, this is a good start. Favorite books, favorite thinkers, favorite poets, etc, etc...keep it comin'

  4. Thanks for the recommendation - these books are right up my alley (I'm nearly 100% Norweigan).

  5. I know a bishop who absolutely LOVES these books. He used to talk about them all the time, but I forgot about them until now! I'll definitely have to put them on my Christmas list! :)

  6. I have never read what the books you recommend. They look interesting. Maybe I will pick one up in the next couple days.

    I recommend "Brothers Karamazov".

  7. Paul,

    What do you like about "The Brothers Karamazov"? I mean it is one of my favorite books and helped lead to my conversion. Isn't the over-arching philosophy contrary to your belief system? Of course you seem perfectly capable (unlike some people who comment here of reading opinions that differ from your own and learning from them...). Also, I could be wrong about the book having a different philosophy than you. Your particular form of Christianity seems to defy classification.

    Also, have you read "Anna Karenina"? I really liked Levin's struggle to find meaning in life (which was Tolstoy's struggle put into the character of Levin). This book also helped me in my conversion.


  8. Oooh!!!! Always looking for new Christian fiction authors! I was about to do a post on my fave author! (It's in the drafts...) Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. I absolutely LOVE these books. As you said, truly "masterpieces". I am currently working on the second book. I seriously could not put the first one down and have only been able to put down this one due to the recent birth of my daughter. :) I wish I knew you in person to be able to discuss this trilogy. I am dying to discuss the various complexities of the novels, especially the characters. They are all so well developed and believable. Though it is based in the 14th century, I think the contemporary reader can relate so well to the characters because Undset really understands the human condition, much like Dostoevsky understands it in Brothers K, as mentioned in the previous comments.
    I also would love to be able to discuss Undset's view of Catholicism through the various characters. I didn't realize she wasn't Catholic when she wrote the novels. Interesting.

  10. I've been wanting to take a break from theology books and get into some non-fiction. I just ordered the first book. Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. Hey Leila! I thought you may me interested in knowing the the Catholic Information Center in DC has a Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan, which consists of 100 books every Catholic should read in their lifetime. The novels you listed are on the list. Here is a link to to the store:

    Link to CIC:

  12. Leila,
    I also love "Gunnar's Daughter" by Undset. An intense short novel, it explores themes of love, longing, social codes and eventually, the fruits of revenge.
    Has anyone read her biography of Catherine of Sienna? Ignatius Press reprinted it last year and it is available on Kindle. I plan on reading it next.

  13. I am always looking for good books to read and too want to check out some good fiction... hope to find some good recs on here!

  14. I loved this trilogy! I also read the Master of Hestviken (sp?) series, which was good, but didn't capture me a completely as this one. I will have to pick up Gunnar's Daughter.

    Great recommendation!

  15. Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment are two books I never read, but my children read them both in their Great Books charter high school. They have had so many interesting conversations about those books! I missed out. Someday I hope to read them both....

    Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions and feedback! So glad so many of you have read Undset!!

  16. Never heard of this series, but I'm happy for the suggestion! I think I'll put it on my Christmas list :)

  17. Going on the list. Thanks for stopping by and letting me know @ this review. I constantly struggle with looking for fiction that does more than thrill or preach. I picked up a book called Five For Sorrow, Ten for Joy, and it sat on my shelf for years. But once I finally got going on it, it changed the way I look at writing fiction.

  18. Leila,

    My dear friend Monica just told me about "Kristin Lavransdatter," which she read because of your blog post. I look forward to picking up a copy.

    Here are some recommendations for you:

    "Atticus" by Ron Hansen
    "Mariette in Ecstasy" by Ron Hansen
    "Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger
    "The Spear" by Louis de Wohl
    "End of the Affair" by Graham Greene
    "Revere Beach Boulevard" by Roland Merullo

  19. Cheryl, thank you! I have read Mariette in Ecstacy" (great book!!), and I look forward to checking out the rest!

    And, Kathleen, if you are still there, I look forward to your recommendation, too!

  20. I saw this and had to comment. I highly recommend the Michael O'Brien novels, especially "Island of the World" and "Cry of Stone". They are some of the most beautiful and moving works of literature I've ever encountered.

  21. I love Kristen Lavransdatter! I read the trilogy at least every other year and get so much out of them at different stages of my life. During my life, I occasionally get flashbacks to scenes in the book. This is a must-read for Catholic women!


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