What is this - a novel or a geological study? The next sentence:
The bridge by which the two shores are here united, appears to render the transformation more apparent, and marks the point at which the lake ceases, and the Adda recommences, to resume, however, the name of Lake where the again receding banks allow the water to expand itself anew into bays and gulfs.
Obviously people had more time on their hands when this was first published than people have these days. This, however, should illustrate why opening with landscape and setting does not hook. It's as if the author wished he was a painter instead of a writer, and fails at both. Telling a story requires a different set of tools than those needed for painting a picture and no matter how wonderful one paints that picture with words, it will obviously lack in some shape or form. Of course a writer can paint a picture in the reader's mind, but I think it needs to be simple in order to no hinder the imagination.
The rest of the first long paragraph is continues describing the geology of the novel's setting.
With paragraph 2 we are introduced to a character:
Towards evening, on the 7th day of November, 1628, Don Abbondio, curate of one of the villages before alluded to (but of the name of which, nor of the house and lineage of its curate, we are not informed), was returning slowly towards his home, by one of these pathways.
What follows is a lot of back story, and I mean a lot with a few fourth-wall breaks.
First thing said:
I'm sure Goethe would roll over in his grave with my verdict of this opening if he cared what I thought, which I'm sure he doesn't. He said this was the greatest novel of his time, but that was a time when people had the time to waste and the brain to appreciate the nuances of storytelling and of life it portrays. But people today? We. Have. More. Important. Things. To. Do.
This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Betrothed is the 87th greatest novel of all time.