Top Ten Tuesdays: Books Requiring Tissues

toptentuesdayHosted by The Broke and the Bookish, this week’s topic is: Ten (Eight) Books That Will Make You Cry

I didn’t make it to ten on this one, because mostly I like books that make me happy…but I did manage to come up with a handful of beautifully tragic ones!

1) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Life is just so hard for everyone.  You’ve heard “I Dreamed a Dream,” right?  Then there’s the entire last 30 pages where I just want to weep over Jean Valjean and his wretched stubbornness about self-denial.  And, and, and…Gavroche, and Eponine, and Enjolras, and M. Mabeuf, who grows poorer and poorer and finally sells his last book.  Not quite on the level of Fantine, of course, but book-lovers will understand!

2) The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – For most of this book, the Phantom is a straight-out monster, simple and unlikable.  Then Leroux finishes with a tragic scene of the Phantom talking about how he felt when he let Christine go…and I have to conclude that Leroux meant us to pity the Phantom after all.

3) The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo – You know that nice happy ending spin that Disney puts on it?  Yeah.  That doesn’t happen.

4) The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne – This one is sad in a very different way.  In the last chapter, Christopher Robin comes to tell the animals that he’s going away (to school, I assume), and he won’t be able to come play with them anymore.  He tells Winnie the Pooh to go out to the Enchanted Place sometimes and remember him, and he’ll be there really.  And it’s just heart-breaking…even though everybody does have to grow up, of course.  Which brings me to the next book…

5) Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – The end of the story gives us a brief account of the Lost Boys when they became adults.  It begins with the sentence “All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them” and concludes with “The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”  Christopher Robin’s growing up feels like the natural sadness of something inevitable; this feels like a very morbid view on the whole thing, which mostly makes me sad for J. M. Barrie, if this was really his feelings on what it meant to grow up.

6) The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein – Another kids’ book with a tragic air.  Between the poor, self-sacrificing tree, to the boy who keeps taking and taking and taking and finally winds up as a sad old man with an empty life…  I’m not even sure what the message here is supposed to be, other than that life is hard and also, we’re destroying the environment.

7) The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean – This one only half counts, since the book doesn’t actually make me terribly sad at any point.  But–because of this book, the sentence “I am just going outside and may be some time” puts a (mostly metaphorical) lump in my throat every time I think of it.

8) Phantom: The Story of His Life by Susan Kay – This is sort of the same as #2, but not!  It’s the story from birth to death of the Phantom of the Opera, and there are different emotional moments than Leroux provided.  Erik’s childhood is so sad (first his mother refuses to kiss him on his fifth birthday, and then his beloved dog dies…)  The part that always gets me, though?  Erik is trying so hard to be hopeful about Christine, and the only prayer he can come up with is an echo from childhood: Please, God, let her love me and I’ll be good forever.  Which is heartbreaking enough, but then he decides to go up to the Opera’s roof to pray, thinking God will hear him better from there.  And Christine and Raoul are also on the roof, and…  Well.  I’m very, very sad for him.

Are we all reaching for tissues by now?  Perhaps I should send you to some funny Discworld moments!  Or leave a comment and share about your favorite, beautiful sad books.

2013 End of the Year Round-up

A new year means it’s time to look back at how the reading has gone for the past year!  Challenge results were posted yesterday, but today let’s look at the best and the worst, and a few more random categories besides.  As usual, links go to my reviews.

1) Best Book  –  It’s a good year when I have a hard time choosing a Best Book!  I read a lot of books by favorite authors and finished a lot of wonderful series, giving me a LOT of choices here.  I’ve had to separate this out into several sub-listings…

1a) Favorite Character  –  This one goes to Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings, most particularly in The Two Towers.  He’s not exactly a new character, since I’d seen the movies years ago, but the books were new reads.  And as wonderful as Sam is in the movies (and I do think Peter Jackson and Sean Astin have as much to do with my love for this character as J. R. R. Tolkien does) my very favorite Sam moment isn’t in the movies.  It’s right near the end of The Two Towers, when he thinks Frodo is dead and even though he desperately doesn’t want to do it, he decides to take the Ring to Mordor himself.  It’s beautiful.

1b) Best Romance/Romantic Couple – Easily taken by Heir to Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier.  There’s a dark hero with a good heart and a heroine who has to find her hidden strength.  Two of my favorite archetypes, and their romance is just lovely.

1c) Most Anticipated Reread – My most anticipated read of 2013 was The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente.  I liked it a lot, but I felt that I couldn’t take it in fully on one read–so now I’m very much looking forward to reading it again.

1d) Hardest to Put Down – Marillier makes the list twice by also bringing in this one with Well of Shades.  She has a tendency towards un-put-down-able final hundred pages, but this one outdid any of the others.  The heroine gets into dire straits and meanwhile characters are futzing about and doing other things and I was desperate for a rescue scene and…well.  It was one of the more intense reading experiences of the year.

1e) Most IntriguingSpeaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card was hard to put down in a different way, not so much the frantic emotional page-turner but rather a book that made me deeply curious, and also offered perhaps the most interestingly alien aliens I’ve encountered.

1f) Loveliest Writing Style – This is kind of an odd category, but it really is what I loved about these particular books: The House on Durrow Street and The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett.  It’s like the best of Austen and Bronte (Charlotte), plus fascinating magic!

1g) Best Nonfiction – I don’t usually read much nonfiction, but I did read The Gift of Wings by Mary Rubio, a biography of L. M. Montgomery.  It was my third attempt to find a good LMM biography, and was all that I might have hoped for.  Truly wonderful and fascinating.

2) Worst Book  –  I am happily drawing a blank here.  I read some books that were only so-so and plenty that were good-but-not-great, but nothing really dreadful enough to qualify for Worst…a happy situation!

3) Most Disappointing Book  –  This one pains me because I so (SO) love Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series…but I think that may be exactly why I was disappointed by Six-Gun Snow White.  It’s a great title, right?  And it is what it sounds like, a Western version of “Snow White.”  Only it was far darker and a far more experimental writing style than I was expecting.  Someone else with different preferences would probably like it just fine, and even I didn’t dislike it exactly…but it wasn’t what I hoped for.

4) Most Unlikely Read – None of my books this year really seem all that unlikely to me, because I know the story behind them…but you might find it more surprising that I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, as well as Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Armin.  That second one is an autobiographical and mostly plot-less account of a woman’s planning and enjoyment of her garden, originally published in 1880 or thereabouts.  This might be less surprising if I mention that it comes up frequently in L. M. Montgomery’s journals as a favorite book…

5) Most Satisfying Read -There’s an easy and probably obvious tie for this one, as it is highly satisfying to have finally read The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  Collectively, they were the four most-intimidating-but-still-want-to-read books on my mental list of someday-reads for many years!

6) Can’t Believe I Waited Until 2013 to Read It  Lord of the Rings would be a possibility here, except that I don’t actually find it all that strange that I waited a long time to tackle those!  So instead I’m putting Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, because I really DON’T know why I waited so long to read something by Pratchett and Gaiman together, especially when I’d heard it recommended many times (and it was brilliant!)

7) Most Hilarious Read  –  I’ve accepted that this category is simply owned by Terry Pratchett, who has been my most hilarious read for the past three years.  So this one could go to Good Omens, only that was already #6, or it could go to The Last Hero…but I think even funnier was Wintersmith, mostly because of Horace the Cheese!

8) Most Looking Forward To in 2014  –  There are four series I’m caught up on and waiting for new books in, plus I expect Tamora Pierce to put out a new Tortall book next year…but it’s not really that hard to choose.  I’m most looking forward to Valente’s Fairyland 4, especially after the cliffhanger at the end of the third one!

What were your best or worst of 2013?  Or feel free to answer any of the other questions!

Les Miserables on Tour

Les Mis Musical (2)A few weeks ago, Les Miserables came to town.  I bought my ticket six months ago, because I was definitely not going to risk missing it!  The production was wonderful, and I’ve been meaning ever since to write up some thoughts.  Who knows–it might be coming to your town next!

Come to think of it, maybe this is an appropriate week for this review.  Wrong revolution, but…  🙂

I’ve previously reviewed the book by Victor Hugo (Parts One, Two and Three), the recent movie, and the London stage production.  I’m not actually obsessed with this story, just…fond of it.

In case you don’t know the plot at all, here’s the brief description I wrote for the London review: The plot is complex, but basically we’re following Jean Valjean, a former convict (for stealing a loaf of bread) who broke parole to try to remake his life, but is still being sought by Inspector Javert.  Valjean’s path intersects with Fantine, a woman who’s driven to prostitution in order to provide for her daughter.  Valjean ends up raising Fantine’s daughter, Cosette–whose path in turn intersects with Marius, a student who is in with a group of young revolutionaries, determined to rise up on behalf of the poor and downtrodden of France.

It was fascinating to see the stage production again, after seeing the movie and reading the book.  I felt like I was much more informed about some of the choices that were being made, or the extensive backstory addressed in just a few lines in the play.  It was also funny how vividly the London production came back to me while I was watching.  I was much farther back from the stage this time, so I found my mental pictures filling in the actors’ faces from London.

I was impressed by the staging and the set design, which in some ways felt like the biggest differences from London.  In London, it was largely minimalist and sometimes (as in the beginning with the convicts) settings were suggested more by pantomime than anything else.  It’s the exact opposite of what I’d expect–you’d think a play that’s permanently in one theater could have far more elaborate sets than a touring company!  Instead, this production had more present scenery, including buildings and backdrops and a dramatic landscape for the convicts to be working in.  There was just one staging decision I did not agree with at all…but I’ll get to that later on in the story.

Peter Lockyer as Valjean was…fine.  Which makes me feel like I’m damning with faint praise, but really he was…perfectly good in the role, he just oddly didn’t resonate with me.  He was quite good in “Who Am I?” which is one of my favorites, and otherwise, I find myself without any comments.

Andrew Varela as Javert, on the other hand, was excellent.  I especially loved “Stars.”  They staged it on the bridge over the Seine (from which he eventually jumps…), so I spent the whole time loving the layers of symbolism.  And he just delivered the emotion of the song so beautifully.

Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc) was absolutely wrenching in a completely different way than Anne Hathaway.  In fact, I noticed she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” very loud and dramatic, which I almost suspect was in deliberate contrast.  Very different–equally effective.  Her descent seemed particularly painful, somehow, maybe because it was so rapid–the space of one song, basically.  Something about having it on stage, no scene cuts, as she keeps stumbling on and off and comes back more disheveled and desperate each time…wow.  Heart-breaking.  And her first “customer” was the factory foreman, which was so subtle and so hideous and SO brilliant (and not done in London–I watched for it).  I feel like Fantine’s journey was possibly the most powerfully presented one, in this production (and I wouldn’t say that’s universally true).

Moving on ahead to second-half characters…Marius (Devin Ilaw) and Cosette (Julie Benko) got an interesting portrayal, as I felt like they were played to some extent for comedy.  Cosette had a kind of puppy-like eagerness in spots, and when Marius sang “I’m doing everything all wrong”–he meant it.  Since the Marius/Cosette romance is usually kind of a non-thing for me (in the play; the book is better), I’m all for getting some comedy in with them.

Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman) was another who just didn’t resonate.  No idea why–she’s one of my favorite characters, absolutely loved her in London and the movie, but have no real comments this time around.

Les Mis Musical (1)On the plus side, little Gavroche (Gaten Matarazzo) was absolutely splendid.  Cheeky, adorable, and present so often…it really conveyed the idea that he has his eyes on everything that’s going on, and he’s the one who really knows what’s what.  Enjolras (Jason Forbach) was excellent leading the revolutionaries.  Dramatic, impassioned, always ready with the fist-pump or raised rifle when the song needs that final dramatic push.  And I swear, I predicted the actor when I was looking at the program.  I was 0n the page with all the actors’ pictures (see photo) but no roles identified, and Forbach just looked like Enjolras to me.  I think it was the sweep of curly hair.  He’s in the middle, third row down.

I was also hugely impressed by Grantaire (Joseph Spieldenner).  He was only called by name once, so I had to look up character descriptions to make sure I had the right revolutionary!  He’s the cynical one, often drunk, ragging on Marius for his puppy-love and pointing out that they’re probably all going to die.  In a way he’s the sour note in the revolutionary fervor, but I find I have to love him for it.  He’s the voice of practicality–and he still stands with them when it counts.  And, he’s the one who’s close with Gavroche, and there was some really nice pairing of the two of them during crowd scenes.

This, I find, brings me to my one objection to the staging.  The barricade didn’t turn.  Those unfamiliar with the play will have no idea why this is important; those familiar with it, I hope you understand the problem!  (Spoilers here on…)  Incredibly important things happen on both sides of the barricade.  We have to see the revolutionaries behind it (which we did).  But in London, we also got to see Gavroche clamber over it, stealing ammunition from fallen soldiers–and falling himself.  Hearing it is just not the same.

The one redeeming aspect of the non-turning barricade was that, while we’re hearing Gavroche on his mission, we see Grantaire.  His reaction, falling to his knees as Gavroche’s song goes silent, almost sold me on the staging.  So, huge appreciation for Grantaire at that moment.  …but I still think it would have been better to turn the barricade.

No turning means we also lost Enjolras falling across the barricade with his flag.  Enjolras draped over the barricade, Gavroche lying below–that moment in London is so vivid in my mind.  They tried to compensate a bit here by having a moment of Javert looking at Enjolras and Gavroche as a cart carried their bodies away.  It was a moving moment–but just not the same.

All right, so much for that.  After the barricade, heading on towards the end, there was beautiful staging for “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.”  All the revolutionaries came back to stand around Marius, each one holding a candle, and I can’t tell you how much I love it that Grantaire and Gavroche were walking together.  Love.  That.

And I love that theater is never the same twice.  This was my second experience with the live musical, and it really was different this time around.  Some parts were better in London, other parts I absolutely loved what they did here.  But for all the pros and the cons, if Les Mis comes to your town…go see it!

What Are You Reading This Spring?

itsmondayTime to join in again for the Book Journey meme, “It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?”

I finished reading and reviewing Les Miserables, which was quite the long haul.  Read the review(s!) here: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

I read and enjoyed the other books on my previous list, with reviews coming up in the next week.  I’ll have Scarlet up tomorrow.  (Addendum: It’s up now!)

Right now I’m in the middle of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, because I love her most famous book, Rebecca.  I first heard about this one years ago, and thought I didn’t want to read it because it was too much like Rebecca–another mysterious woman who may be good or may be monstrous, though in this case it’s her husband who died under mysterious circumstances.  So I put that one at the back of my mind and read three other, very different, books by du Maurier…and didn’t find them to be all that good.  Yet I’m convinced by Rebecca that du Maurier is absolutely brilliant!  And thus I’m deciding that maybe it makes sense after all to read her most Rebecca-like other book.  So far, I’m liking it better than the others!

Spring BooksAfter this one, I have a big stack of fantasy I’m eager to jump into.  The Once Upon a Time “challenge” runs every spring, and I may just start in on the fantasy a few days early.  I have a number of rereads piled up, but I want to take a new perspective on them: Chalice by Robin McKinley, because I want to look at it as a Beauty and the Beast retelling; Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, because it was only the second “12 Dancing Princesses” story I ever read, and now I’ve read eight or ten, and written one; The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien which I haven’t read since I was maybe twelve.  And I am vowing and swearing to read Lord of the Rings this spring, and The Hobbit seems like good gateway-Tolkien.

And last, I have been meaning to read Good Omens pretty much forever.  Because, I mean, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman!

I’ll let you know how it goes.  🙂  Happy Spring and Happy Reading this week!

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Parts IV and V

Les Mis (2)We’re coming down to the final stretch in Les Mis.  If you missed them, you can go back and read the first and second reviews.  Today, I’ll be looking at the last two volumes, when the barricade arises.

This section begins with romance and then moves to revolution.  Marius and Cosette’s relationship takes leaps forward compared to the previous section–by which I mean they actually start talking to each other!  After a blissful interlude, however, circumstances separate them, seemingly forever, and Marius decides that he has nothing to live for.  Conveniently for him, a very good opportunity to get himself killed comes swiftly along.

The revolutionaries finally come into their own in this part of the book.  Paris rises in rebellion and the book focuses in on Enjolras and his band, building and holding the barricade at the Rue Saint-Denis.  They rally around to fight the good fight, while Marius turns up mostly by accident and plunges in.  Inspector Javert is in the midst, revealed as a police spy, and before too long Jean Valjean joins in too…for reasons I felt were never adequately explained.

This is certainly the bloodiest part of the book, and probably the most exciting (although it gets stiff competition from an earlier sequence when Javert was stalking Valjean).  Hugo demonstrates his ability to make even inaction interesting, as they wait on the barricade for each next engagement–and the engagements come with all their drama too.

A few spoilers here, although nothing that the musical won’t tell you…  Gavroche’s death is almost identical in the book as in the musical, and is heartrending in both.  Eponine’s death in the book was more of a disappointment to me.  It’s quick, and it’s largely ignored by everyone, including Hugo.  At pretty much every point of Eponine’s arc, I prefer what the musical did.

But the rest of the barricade sequence is excellent, and I didn’t even mind that they retreated eventually into the cafe.  The movie made it look like a pell-mell retreat, but in the book they fight every inch.

After the barricade falls and a few more trials are gone through, there’s a brief interlude where we actually seem to be heading for a happy ending.  But I didn’t trust Hugo to take us there…and he didn’t.  I won’t get into the particulars but the last section is heartbreaking, and I think the blame falls largely on the heads of Valjean and Cosette.

I love Valjean–he’s a wonderful man–at least until the last hundred pages or so, and then I just don’t know whether I want to cry over him or shake him.  He has a very strong streak of self-sacrifice throughout the entire book, and most of the time it’s immensely admirable.  At the end, though, it begins to approach the point of masochism, self-denial for very little purpose.  There’s an argument for what he does, but it’s flimsy.

Valjean clearly grasped two thirds of the “greatest commandments.”  He has “Love thy God” and he constantly demonstrates “love thy neighbor,” but he never got the idea of that last phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The concept of self-forgiveness seems to have escaped him.  I still love him–but Hugo maybe takes it all just a little too far by the end.

As for Cosette–I don’t love Cosette.  She’s such a flighty, childish little nothing.  She has nothing to do in the musical, and scarcely anything more to do in the book, long as it is.  She’s sweet and she’s pretty and Hugo (and Marius) keeps referring to her as an angel, but she never does anything demonstrably angelic.  Cosette has all the refinement to present herself well, and appears perfectly demure and modest and all that, but that’s the extent of her talents.  I suppose if the ability to modestly lower one’s eyes makes one an angel, then by all means, call her that.  But by criteria of actively doing good for others…I find Gavroche far more angelic.

Heartbreaking (and somewhat frustrating!) as the end of the book is, this is still a wonderful read.  I spent longer on this book than I’ve spent on any one book in years, but it was absolutely worth it.  The characters and the world they inhabit are vivid and alive and drew me in completely.  Highly recommended–if you have some time! 🙂

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Volume III

Les Mis (2)This week I’m doing a multipart review of the excellent but very long Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  Read about Volumes I and II here.  Volume III focuses (though not immediately) on Marius, leaving Jean Valjean and Cosette out of the story for quite a while.  This is where I think it helped the most that I knew the musical, or I would have been feeling very adrift!

Marius was raised in wealth, but fell out with his grandfather over his estranged father’s politics.  Turning his back on his grandfather and his money, Marius lives in Paris in relative poverty, scraping along on some minimal scholarly work–but contented with that.  And then one day at the Luxembourg Gardens he sees a beautiful young woman out with her father and is hopelessly smitten.  They carry on a lengthy courtship of glances, until one day she ceases to come and Marius is plunged into the depths of despair.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Marius.  He’s such a nice young man.  I can’t dislike him–he’s so nice–but there’s not a whole lot I like about him either.  I both accept and respect his dedication to his principles (a dedication I don’t quite believe in the musical), but at the same time, he follows that dedication with such utter lack of common sense that I shake my head a bit too.  His most praiseworthy attribute in the musical is his revolutionary fervor, which just doesn’t exist in the book.  On the other hand, his most blameworthy attribute, his blindness regarding Eponine, doesn’t really exist in the book either.  But that brings me to two other plot threads…

Marius’ crowd of revolutionary friends do turn up in this book and I enjoyed getting more depth on them.  At the same time, I was surprised by how shallow Marius’ connection to them was.  He knows them, but he’s really not one of them.  It gets more complicated with the barricade, but that’s Part IV.  I was happy to see Enjolras, though, the leader of the group and one of my favorites from the musical.

Marius’ path also intersects with the Thenardiers, who have come to Paris and fallen on even worse times.  Take away the humor from the Thenardiers, and you have instead examples of just how low people can sink, both in poverty and in moral character.

Two members of the Thenardier family particularly fascinate me.  First, Eponine, the older daughter.  I actually found her a more interesting character in the musical.  There’s a spark of something in her, this sense that she could be so much more than her life has so far let her be.  Oddly enough, I get less of that feeling from the book.  I think it’s there, but she’s far more disreputable too.  There also seems to be less of a relationship between her and Marius than the musical suggested, to the point that I can’t blame him for not returning her unrequited crush.  It redeems him a bit, though I felt less for her.

I was just a little disappointed regarding Eponine, but I was thrilled with Gavroche.  I can see why the musical never got into the fact that he’s the Thenardiers’ son–he has only the most tenuous of relationships.  He emerges in the book just as I had hoped, a plucky, cheeky street urchin, keeping his head up and his confidence intact no matter what life hands him.  I love Gavroche’s spirit, and I also love that even in his own poverty, he’s still generous.  He gives to others even if it means he won’t eat that night himself, and he seems to do it instinctively.  Love, love Gavroche!

You may be wondering at this point what ever became of Valjean, and you’d be justified in that wondering!  I don’t think he’s mentioned by name in this entire Volume…although it doesn’t take much insight to match up Valjean and Cosette with another set of characters who do appear here…

I’m definitely not invested in Marius the way I was in Valjean, but that didn’t really interfere with my enjoyment of this section.  The story was engaging even if I had mixed feelings about the main character.

Come back tomorrow for a review of the last section…one day more ’til the barricades arise. 🙂

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Volumes I and II

Compare the thickness here...
Compare the thickness here…

I have a fear of long books, a fear I have been attempting to confront this year by reading some of the big thick books I’ve put off (usually because there are so many other books to read!)  I’m trying to get in one a month, and in February I tackled what’s probably the thickest of them all, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  My copy had 920 pages of very small font, and with that much text to get through, it’s a good thing I enjoyed the story so much!

I’ve seen the musical, both as a play and the recent movie, and I think that was beneficial reading the original.  The musical felt (to me) like it was predominantly accurate to the book–not in every particular, but in most ways.  Knowing the soundtrack so well, I frequently had relevant lines running about in my mind as I read the corresponding scene.  That was fun, but more importantly, knowing the musical meant I had a pretty good idea where Hugo was going–which is not always obvious!

Before I go further, I should confess something.  I didn’t actually read all of the book.  I’m guesstimating I read a solid 750 pages.  You see, Hugo has this habit of going off into history or social commentary for twenty pages at a stretch.  And…I started skipping those chapters.  In a way, it’s actually a compliment to the rest of the book–I was far too eager to get back to Jean Valjean and the rest, and couldn’t stomach the amount of reading time it would take to wade through the other bits.  I never found that I was having any trouble following subsequent chapters after skipping sections, so it seemed to work out.

The book is subdivided into five volumes, but I think really reads like three clear sections.  Volume I and II focus on Jean Valjean and, more briefly, Fantine.  Volume III is Marius’ story.  Volume IV and V are about the revolution, in the middle of which all the earlier plot threads intersect.  I could give you a very, very long review…but as you likely surmised from the title, I’m going to break this into three parts instead.  So today, we’ll start with the first two volumes.

Set in France in the early 1800s, Volume I begins the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict on parole who finds himself at a crossroads when he meets a particularly sainted bishop (Hugo drives the point home rather).  Valjean struggles with whether or not to steal from the bishop…and I won’t give the details away, but he ends up resolving to shed his former identity and go forward to lead an honest life.

Jump ahead several years and we meet Fantine, a woman left alone with a child born out of wedlock.  She falls on worse and worse times, eventually turning to prostitution to provide for her daughter, Cosette, who has been left in the care of two innkeepers, the Thenardiers.

The first observation I have to make is that Hugo likes backstory.  The first 35 pages are the backstory for the sainted bishop; I was still feeling dedicated at that point and read them.  They’re not bad, but the story picked up a lot for me at the beginning of Book Second, when Valjean arrives in the story.  I loved learning more about Valjean’s backstory, and about Fantine’s as well, when we come to her.  I loved getting the details that the musical only hints at, and I loved the depth of the character exploration.

Valjean is a wonderful character.  It was fascinating to find out his history, and also how he developed (or perhaps I should say, regressed) during his time as a convict.  We then watch his struggle at the turning point to reclaim his humanity and his faith…and then his struggle for the rest of the book to keep them.  More on that later, though.  These first two volumes demonstrate Hugo’s ability to make mental struggle fascinating.  I think I recall that “man vs. himself” is one of the standard conflicts of literature, but I’ve rarely seen it explored to such an extent.

We meet several other principle characters in the first two volumes, particularly the Thenardiers and Inspector Javert.  I was actually a bit disappointed that we didn’t meet Javert sooner.  He turns up fairly far along, and there’s just a few references to establish that Javert knew Valjean while he was a convict.  So many other things are so much more elaborated upon, I hoped for more here.  What was here was good, though, and we delve into Javert’s mind some too.  I know people who just love Javert; I can’t say I’m one of them, but I do find him an intriguing character.

The Thenardiers probably diverged farthest from the musical version of the characters.  In the musical, they are nasty individuals, but they’re played for humor.  In the book, they’re not even remotely funny.  They’re just nasty, horrible, awful people.  Cosette’s situation living with them is incredibly heartrending.  Imagine whatever other “poor orphan waif” story you’ve read, multiply it a few times, and you’ll probably have it.  I think that was one of the most gripping sections of the book.

Volume II ends on what’s essentially a happy note, and we’ll leave it there for today.  Come back tomorrow to meet Monsieur Marius in Volume III!

Other reviews:
Compulsive Overreader
Teacups in the Garden
One More Page
Anyone else…?  I know I have readers who are Les Mis fans–send me links to your reviews and I’ll add them!

Buy it here: Les Miserables