Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean - the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread - Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time.
Hugo, Victor (1862). [Genre: Historical]
Les Miserables has shot right to the top of my best-books-of-all-time list. I'm a long time fan of the musical and I think the book broke my heart even more! I think most people will be familiar with the general storyline from the musical/movie if not the book, following the convict Jean Valjean and a large cast of supporting characters, including the policeman Javert, the crook Thenardier and the working class Fantine. It's a hard book to talk about, because its scope is so huge, so I've roughly divided up my review.
Plot & Structure
Over a quarter of the novel is taken up by Hugo's 'digressions' (or as my husband calls them, 'awesome random tangents') in which the author inserts an essay only vaguely related to the plot or subplot. I found some of them interesting - such as the 19 chapters he spends detailing Waterloo, while others, like the 4 or 5 chapters on the history of the Paris sewer system in the middle of the climax, had me wishing he'd just get back to the story already. Strangely enough though I think the rest of the story would come across as disjointed without them. It jumps through time, space and character with terrifying speed; from 1815 to 1832, from a medium-sized town in the deep South of France to the Paris uprising. It's powerful and somehow just. . .works, even though it shouldn't.
Ultimately, I think what really makes Les Miserables are the characters and what they represent. For me, Les Mis is a powerful story of redemption and injustice. Hugo does much to show what is wrong with French society of the time - Valjean's imprisonment for 19 years after he steals a loaf of bread for his starving family and his treatment after release. Fantine's inescapable fall into prostitution as she attempts to do the best for her illegitimate child. The breakup of family structure is particularly well portrayed, from the fates of Cosette and Gavroche to Marius' estrangement from his grandfather.
Hugo has a gorgeous way with words and astute perceptions about politics, society and life. It makes Les Miserables worth reading. Even the bits about the sewers. Just look at the first page of quotes from Les Mis on Goodreads. The lessons on that page alone could guide you pretty well through life, which shows the wealth contained within this books pages.
As a reader already familiar with the basic plot, I also loved how the novel filled in a lot of gaps for me. Although having finished the book I can see how true the adaptations have been to the original (about as true as they could be without being 10 hours long) it was fun seeing how all the characters fit together in ways far more complex than the adaptations ever portray - such as the street urchin Gavroche being the abandoned son of the Thenardier's or M. Thenardier's interaction with Marius' father at the battle of Waterloo.
Overall, I don't think anyone would regret reading Les Mis. When I mentioned it on a Top Ten Tuesday post recently a commenter described it as an effort and daunting, but those that have read it find it life changing. That sums it up in a nutshell really.
5/5 Stars. Love it.
Les Miserable is one of my picks for the 2013 TBR Challenge. It's also on my Classics Club list!