(N.B. This review contains plot descriptions which may contain minor spoilers – but who hasn’t seen the film/musical before reading this, right?)
Ever since I fell in love with the stage show, and subsequently film, it has been a goal of mine to read the epic that is ‘Les Misérables’. Therefore, this summer I decided to finally embark on the journey, and surprisingly, it didn’t take me as long as I had imagined – only 17 days! In fairness, I was reading 70 long, small-print pages per day, but it was completely and utterly worth it.
One thing I adored about ‘Les Misérables’ was that the plot has the perfect balance of dramatic action and tranquil romance. Cleverly, this is interwoven through nearly all of the prominent characters, Marius being the most obvious. This makes the plot very character-driven, rather than a situation to which the protagonists are merely responding to – a plot type which I am not that familiar with, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed. In addition, there were quite a few scenes which I was unfamiliar with (as they had been cut out of other adaptations), but ones which added much more character depth; for example, Fantine’s past before working in the factory was elaborately described, allowing the reader to get a better sense of her personality and nature. This also made her death a lot more emotive as you have connected with her character on a much deeper level.
In terms of character descriptions, these were outstanding. Physically, emotionally, motives – everything was covered. As mentioned above, this allows a much deeper connection between character and reader to be established, a feature that is extremely important towards the story of ‘Les Misérables’. Furthermore, having such well-formed characters inevitably leads to superb development; Jean Valjean’s evolution from selfishness to putting both Cosette and Marius before himself is one of my favourite examples, along with the internal, moral struggles faced by Javert.
Yet another thing Victor Hugo must be praised for is his use of extremely emotive language. Whether it be descriptions of characters, feelings, or scenery, it is all unbelievably beautiful. As a reader, it makes the reading experience entirely immersive, particularly with the embellished illustrations of both settings and emotions. In addition to pages of stunning description, Hugo has extreme talent at writing such powerful statements that really make you sit and go – ‘wow’. As a result, every time I updated my reading progress on Goodreads, I would pick out a sentence which had enthralled me most and document it there so I had a neat collection of my most favourite quotes to look back on.
My one and only criticism with ‘Les Misérables’ is that Victor Hugo does have the tendency to dedicate whole books* to topics which could be considered off topic. For example, when Jean Valjean enters the sewers carrying an unconscious Marius, Hugo breaks away to give a 15-page description of Paris’s sewer system, explaining how and why it’s developed over the course of 30 years. Overall, quite irrelevant. I would say that Hugo does this around 5 or 6 times throughout, meaning around 1/10 of the book is filled with these monotonous and repetitive ramblings. However, to give him some credit, I can see the reasoning as a majority of these rants are aimed at criticising some aspect of society, which overall is Hugo’s motive with ‘Les Misérables’.
* ‘Les Misérables’ is split into 5 large parts, each including around 8 books, which then have their own smaller chapters.
In conclusion, ‘Les Misérables’ is truly deserving of its epic status. Throughout my read, I was dithering whether to give it 4 or 5 stars as the ‘irrelevant’ rants are a struggle to read at times; however, the last 100 pages were so unbelievably outstanding that in the end I couldn’t bear to give it any less than 5 stars. Victor Hugo absolutely nails everything you could want out of a novel – from stunning descriptions of every kind, to well-established and connectable characters, to a thrilling and engaging plot, ‘Les Misérables’ is a sincerely incredible novel.
Next read: ‘How Hard Can Love Be?’ by Holly Bourne