I feel so excited to be writing this review at long last. Les Miserables has been slowly (oh, God, so slowly) chugging along in the background of my reading for about 4 months. It’s been one of those books that sometimes I just couldn’t bring myself to pick up but I felt it watching me – its eyes boring into me whenever I chose to read something else instead. I know lots of people subscribe to the theory that if you aren’t enjoying a book, then don’t bother wasting your time on it, but I set out to read these titles and I am nothing if not stubborn about my endeavours. So, I persevered.
I would like to say very clearly, however, that, despite this overwhelmingly negative intro, so much of this book is very enjoyable. It’s an incredible story full of different and complex characters – there’s love, loss, humour, revolution and despair and I am making it my mission, in this review, to share some practical tips about how you can also get the most out of reading it.
Like most people, I loved Les Miserables, the musical. Find me a dissenter – someone who claims it is anything other than spectacular and I will read the whole book again. In French. I’ve seen the musical twice, know most of the songs off by heart and weep every time I get to the finale whether on TV, stage or iPod. So I was intrigued to see what the book would offer me; would it spark the same passionate response in me? Would I love it as much? I did, in fact, cry at the end of the novel (and no, it wasn’t out of relief to finally be done with the thing).
The story truly is moving, the characters feel so real and their situations so bleak. It has that Dickensian feel to it, where the never-ending misfortunes of characters, and the commonality of such hardships to so many do make you reflect on how lucky you are. It is also apparent extremely quickly how the book got its name. ‘The Miserable Ones’ is not, in case you were in any doubt, an ironic title. It would be tough to find a character in it who isn’t touched by grief. There are moments of joy, but the surfeit of wretchedness doesn’t seem to matter too much because, as I often find, those who suffer provide the most captivating storylines. Interestingly, I found Marius a lot less likeable in the book than he is portrayed in the musical, particularly in his rejection of Jean Valjean when he discovers he is a criminal, and in his misguided sense of duty to his father’s villainous ‘saviour’. Cosette comes across as a little more coquettish, Thernadier is much more evil and the atrocities endured by most characters are far more severe. The characters are also more developed and complex; your affections towards them ebb and flow like the tide throughout the course of the story. All in all, the book is a much grimmer portrayal of life in 19th century France than I could have expected.
The thing that makes this book difficult is all the rest of the writing, superfluous to the story, that Victor Hugo decided to include in it. I don’t know if they had editors in 1862 when this was published but, if Hugo did have one, he was terrible. This is symptomatic of classic novels, and one of the reasons that they seem so impenetrable to the average reader. There are an inordinate amount of chapters in this book that are not necessary to your enjoyment of the main story. In fact, for me, they detracted from it. Over a quarter of the book does not actually advance the story in any way. Hugo has used this novel as an opportunity to pontificate on subjects that range across subsidiary skirmishes at Waterloo, the history of the sewer systems, the exact differentiation between insurgency and uprisings, revolutionary spirit and the backstory of a nunnery to name but a few. Whilst I understand that if you’re a historian, philosopher or political theorist, there’s a lot to get excited about here, I just couldn’t. The main trouble is that these passages often disrupt the thrust of the story and, in my opinion, spoil the flow and cadence for the reader. What makes it all the more frustrating is that Hugo himself acknowledges that he is doing it, and interjects with phrases that amount to ‘I know this isn’t relevant, but we should stop here to discuss the history of this building in more detail’. A sentence to make your heart sink.
However, there is good news! As a Good Samaritan deed and to try to encourage people to read this book, I have listed the chapters that you can skip at the end of this review. This should go some way to improving your reading experience although, there will still be some episodes within chapters that might make you despair. Sorry about that. Please, persevere.
I will pause here to say that my view is shaped by what I look for in my books. I love stories and I like these to unfold at a certain pace. A naturally impatient person, I find slowdowns or pauses in my narratives very frustrating. The philosophical passages that I refer to often provide the social commentary that anchors the fiction to real concerns that Hugo wants to highlight. As such, Les Miserables as a piece of work is doing two things: sparking debate and discourse on issues such as poverty and injustice, and telling a fantastic story. This is one of the major reasons that it has earned such acclaim. Books that do more than just tell a simple story often do.
To conclude, Les Miserables is certainly a book worth reading. When the story is in full flow it moves quickly, absorbing you entirely with captivating characters and vivid despondency. It is also written so beautifully with endless wonderful and thought-provoking quotations, haunting imagery and delicate phrasing. The digressions are impressively knowledgeable, descriptive and insightful, they just aren’t my cup of tea, and frustrated me too much to give them a real chance to appreciate them for what they are.
What I am flabbergasted at, after reading Les Mis, is that anyone could have finished that and thought, “Now, there’s a blockbuster musical in the making”.
Passages you can avoid (if you’re like me):
Vol 1: Fantine: Book 1, ch1-15. This is the entire first book; it tells the backstory of a priest who is, at best, a cameo character.
Vol 2: Cosette: Book 1, ch1; Book 2, ch3; Book 6, ch1-11; Book 7, ch1-8. Book 6 is the story of a battle in Waterloo that has no relevance to the story.
Vol 3: Marius: Book 1, ch1-12; Book 2, ch2 (also lots of detail within the other chapters of these books that you can skim); Book 3 (backstory of Marius); Book 4 (Marius’ revolutionary compatriots); Book 7, ch1-2
Vol 4: The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St Denis: Book 1, ch1-3; Book 7 (on slang); Book 10, ch1-2 (and probably 3-4… lots of talk on what revolution is); Book 12, ch1
Vol 5: Jean Valjean: Book 1, ch1 & 20 (details of barricades); Book 2, ch1-6 (history of the Paris sewers… although I actually quite enjoyed these!)
Star rating: 3/5