I’m always slightly embarrassed to admit how few of the great classics I’ve read. Sure, I read all the required and suggested readings for every  English class I took, but nothing can convince me that Wuthering Heights or Moby Dick are worth getting more than a quarter through (trust me, I’ve tried). But when my then new family-in-law wouldn’t stop talking about how great Les Miserables was, I felt that it was only fair to read the book one of my favorite musical soundtracks was based on. And with the movie out now, a better reason to read the book couldn’t be found.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

The copy of Les Mis I read was hardback, and given its size basically impossible to take anywhere since it couldn’t fit in my purse. Because of this, it took me several months to read and I often got frustrated with my slow pace–but I never got frustrated with the story, because it was amazing. Taking place during a turbulent period of French history, Les Mis follows the story of convicted felon Jean Valjean. Placed in a prison work camp for 17 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, Valjean eventually escapes while on parole and creates a successful life for himself. He is constanly hunted by Javert, an officer, and must keep his real identity hidden. It’s during this secret life that he meets Fantine, a woman with a tale as tragic as his own. As a young woman she fell in love, but the man was gone before she realized she was pregnant. Afraid to go back home and unable to find work as a young unwed mother, Fantine leaves her child, Cosette, in the care of an inn keeper and his wife; once her past is found out, she looses her factory job and turns to prostitution to pay for Cosette’s care. To honor Fantine’s dying wish, Valjean promises to adopt Cosette and raise her in Fantine’s place.

The book then skips ahead several years, and Cosette has gone from a young child to a teen. Valjean is still running from Javert, and Cosette has fallen in love with a young revolutionary named Marius. The inn keeper family who took in Cosette, the Thénardiers, are also back in town trying to extort money from Valjean. There are many minor characters in this section and the book switches focus much more than it did in the first half, but Eponine, the Thénardier’s daughter, is one of my favorite characters so I really enjoyed the second half of the story as she joins Marius and the other students in staging a revolution.

While the plot line of Les Mis covers many years and follows many characters, its greatest strength lies in the detailed themes that carry the book. Victor Hugo constantly finds new ways to introduce his themes in a way that feels organic to the story, especially the idea of religion/belief. Valjean meets an old priest while he’s running from Javert, and that meeting prompts him to create the successful life he had; Javert has many moments of personal struggle, and his moral code guides his difficult choices, and Jaljean and Cosette spend several years hiding in a convent. The idea of wealth is also explored through the many life stages of the characters, and I found it fascinating to see what life was like in 19th century France for those living in poverty. The Thénardier family constructs elaborate cons to get money just to keep a fire burning in the winter and food on the table. The street children beg and steal, and create elaborate stories to distract themselves from their terrible lives. The student revolutionaries that Marius befriends are well off enough to afford an education, but the goal of their (failed) revolution is a better quality of life for all the poor people in Paris who have been ignored in previous revolutions. And of course, there is a strong undercurrent of governmental legitimacy (or lack of legitimacy) in every passage about the students and flashback to Napoleon’s rule.

A book this long with such serious themes may seem intimidating, but I cannot express how much I loved this story. The writing was smooth, despite being an English translation, and the characters are so engrossing it was impossible to put the book down for long. I loved the insider’s look it gave into French history with the many tangents to explain important battles and the history of Paris.

I also loved the recent movie version, and someday hope to see the stage version. So please, share your thoughts! Have you read the book, and did you love Eponine (and dislike Cosette) as much as I did? Have you seen the stage version, and how does it compare to the movie?

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