This is another one of those Charles Dickens classics I was supposed to read as a kid and never did. Since I've never seen any of the movies either, it was actually pretty unspoiled for me, though I did know how it ends (anyone growing up in the English-speaking world can hardly have avoided knowing Sydney Carton's famous last lines: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Once again, I am in awe of Dickens's ability to craft larger-than-life characters whose defining personality traits and conversational tics carry them strongly through the story, and his depiction of France before and during the Revolution is as vivid and bloody as the Terror, despite his exercising all the expected Victorian restraint when it comes to actually describing bloodshed. He also contrasts Paris with London, and not always in London's favor; Dickens was a marvelous social critic of his time, and with understated clarity he shows the reader how, while the British aristocracy was no longer trampling peasants beneath their horses' feet with impunity, the English court system was hardly more just or less rapacious and corrupt than the French.
The reader can be forgiven for thinking it's just a historical novel about the French Revolution and the thrilling escape of some of its would-be victims. Dickens tells us what the novel is really about in the last chapter:
And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
The story itself is typically Dickensian in that it is full of memorable characters who are all brought onstage separately and then brought together by a tightening web of plot threads that ends up tying everyone together one way or another. Once Dickens introduces a character, he means to use that character until the very end, and will use any improbable plot device to make sure everyone is where he wants them to be. So of course the spy who is known to the Defarges is the very same man whom Sydney Carton saw tried years earlier in London; of course the nephew of the Marquis who imprisoned Doctor Manette (who once employed Monsieur Defarge) is the very same man who flees France and marries his daughter; of course Sydney Carton and Jerry Cruncher just happen to be in Paris on business (with the "man of business" Mr. Lorry) when Charles Darnay goes there, etc. And there is the most improbable plot device of all, telegraphed at the beginning of the book when Carton faces Darnay during that London trial. But it all works to create a tense and very enjoyable novel.
One of my chief complaints about Dickens (besides his overuse of coincidence) is his very Victorian view of women: always angels of one kind or another, whether fallen or still high on their pedestals. But he almost redeems himself of that in this book with his Angel of Death, Madame Defarge (and her sidekick, The Vengeance), one of the scariest ladies in British literature. And the final confrontation between Madame Defarge and Miss Pross was all the more epic for that Dickens so rarely resolves a situation with a scene of violence, and this time he did it with two bad-ass women, both of them practically waving their national flags as they went at each other.
Definitely a favorite, and one I should have read earlier.