Kristin Lavransdatter is actually three novels — The Wreath (1920), The Wife (1921), and The Cross (1922) — compiled into one massive book. I bought the Penguin Classics deluxe edition a few years ago, back when I read Gunnar’s Daughter and had traveled to Norway and was still on a Viking high. To my low-key chagrin, the book was not another thrilling, over-the-top epic about Vikings. On my shelves it sat for the next three years until the 45-hour-long audiobook version was released (about the same amount of time it would take, I’d estimated, to finish a king-sized quilt I’d been working on for months). It was perfect timing.
The trilogy follows its title character from girlhood to old age in fourteenth-century Norway. It’s a period in the Middle Ages when the last vestiges of paganism have given way to Catholicism. As the eldest daughter of Lavrans, a privileged and well-respected landowner, Kristin is well-liked by her community. Lavrans, whose sons all died in infancy, dotes on his girls, especially Kristin. When she reaches a marriageable age, she’s promised to Simon Darre but begs her father to let her spend a year in a convent first. Ironically, it’s there that she becomes a scandalous woman; she meets the love of her life, Erlend Nikolausson and promises herself to him no matter the cost.
Although they live on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Molly and Michèle have the type of close friendship that picks up right where they left off the last time they saw each other. As film critics turned film producers, the two see each other a few times a year at industry events and talk on the phone all the time. When Michèle gets a phone call that Molly has suffered an aneurism and is now in a deep coma, she’s distraught.
Months pass in which friends and family wait to see the full extent of the damage the aneurism caused. The longer Molly is in a coma, the less likely it is that she’ll have a positive prognosis. She finally does wake, but she’s just not the same.
Told in a series of letters from Michèle to Molly, Mon amie américaine explores the boundaries of friendship. Before the aneurism, Molly was the life of the party. In her work, she had the instincts and confidence to excel. These were things people loved about her. Michèle, though happily settled with her family, saw herself and Molly as equals who made different choices in life: if she had decided not to get married, she’d be living like Molly; if Molly had decided to get married, she’d be living like Michèle. Families aside, they were the same and that’s what made them click.
In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.
Ètienne Davodeau’s The Initiates is a graphic memoir about the time when he and established vintner Richard Leroy worked closely together to learn about each other’s professions. Davodeau knows nothing about wine or winemaking; Leroy doesn’t read comic books. The two work in strikingly different worlds, but as they get hands-on experience in the other’s field, the parallels in their lives become apparent. Each is an artist in his own right.
Over a period of about a year, Davodeau shadows Leroy at his vineyard. Rain, snow, or shine, he participates in all of the backbreaking work that goes into organic winemaking. During downtime, Leroy teaches Davodeau all about wine tasting — everything from cheap bottles to wines that cost hundreds of dollars. He takes Davodeau along on business trips, and the two visit other vineyards in the French countryside. The vintner community is small and obsessed with their craft, and long, animated discussions about winemaking often ensue.
In 1986, photographer Didier Lefèvre was hired to join Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) on a mission into Afghanistan, which was in the middle of a war with the Soviet Union. MSF had roots in the country but had been forced to leave because of escalating violence that had resulted in the deaths of some of their aid workers. With the country now at war, the need for medical care was imperative, and MSF intended to go back into the heart of the country to establish a hospital.
Getting to their destination was a very dangerous journey that required the help of the Mujahideen. They left Pakistan in the middle of the night and traveled by foot across the border and higher into the rugged mountain terrain of Afghanistan. It was Lefèvre’s job to photograph the journey entire journey, and unlike the others in the MSF team, he didn’t know anything about the culture or speak the language. The team was led by a woman named Juliette, and it is through Lefèvre’s eyes that we see Juliette negotiate with everyone along the way, from humble nomads to wealthy landowners and Mujahideen fighters; it’s a rare sight, considering she’s a petite white woman dealing with leaders from a male-dominated culture. Lefèvre is equally shocked when he sees their final destination: the war-zone hospital they establish in Afghanistan looks nothing like the Western hospitals he’s accustomed to. It’s a life-changing and physically taxing experience for him, and the treacherous journey back is equally formative.