Kristin Lavransdatter tells the story of one woman from childhood to death, through betrothal and an illicit affair, marriage and marital discord, and childbirth and motherhood. There is too much in it to grasp in a single reading, let alone summarise in a brief review. Among other things it encompasses the complexities of kinship ties and family relationships, the pitfalls of reputation and status in tightly knit rural communities (and briefly of the high politics of Sweden and Norway), and the variety of religious beliefs and practices. Undset handles the changes in pacing needed in a novel covering half a century, convincingly connecting events and depicting changes over a lifetime.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a powerful and moving treatment of universal themes. It is also a compelling portrait of a unique individual in her historical and social context — that is, it succeeds as a historical novel, in the depiction of a world that can stand by itself and is not parasitic on the present.