Marie, Dancing

Marie, DancingI think we all know I’m a fan of the Phantom of the Opera…and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the primary reason I wanted to read Marie, Dancing by Carolyn Meyer.  It just happens to be set in the Paris Opera House around 1880, the same time as the Phantom.  But besides that, the book also plays to my interest in Impressionist art, and in Paris in general, and in stories about strong young women.  The book only shares a setting with Leroux and there are no Phantom references at all…but there is a good story and a lot of information about the Company of the Paris Opera.

Marie and her two sisters are ballet dancers at the Palais Garnier.  The story opens when the painter, Monsieur Degas, selects Marie to be his model for a sculpture he has in mind–the sculpture that will become The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.  Degas and his art are just one part of Marie’s story, as she struggles with her family’s poverty and tries to make choices about her future.

Marie lives in a very, very different world than Christine Daae.  Unlike Leroux’s spooky thriller, this is a gritty, realistic book.  Marie’s problems are real and serious, with never enough food, a mother who drinks too much absinthe to forget her pain, and an older sister who aspires to become a rich man’s mistress and thinks Marie should do the same.  The book is not depressing exactly, but it is a glimpse at the harsh reality behind the elegant forms of the dancers.

Marie does love to dance, and she has dreams of becoming a great dancer.  The book is not really about dancing though–that recedes more and more as it goes on, and becomes more about Marie’s family, her struggles, and a romance–lest you think it’s all grim!

From the point of view of a Phantom fan, this definitely gave me some different angles on things.  It gave me more basic information about life at the Opera House than anything else I’ve read, and was utterly eye-opening on the subject of money.  I never appreciated just how much money 20,000 francs a month (the Phantom’s salary) really is, until Marie sighed with envy over the salary of the higher-level dancers–6,800 francs a year.

The sections with Degas were particularly interesting.  There are occasional references to specific sketches or paintings, and I think I recognized some famous ones!  Mary Cassatt is also present as a supporting character, and I loved the glimpses of the history of Impressionism.

I would have liked more description of the setting–the Opera House is gorgeous, and yet other than a few bits here and there, I didn’t get much sense of it.  But even if appearances were somewhat lacking, Marie’s world came vividly to life.

If you’re interested in dancing, and particularly the Paris Opera, this is a very good slice of historical fiction, unflinching but not unremittingly grim either, and the characters and plot are both engaging.  And you’ll look at Degas’ Little Dancer in a whole new way!

Author’s Site: http://www.readcarolyn.com/

Other reviews:
The Estella Collective
That’s all I found!  Anyone else?

Buy it here: Marie, Dancing

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

Saturday Snapshot: Paris Revisited

In reading, I am still making my way through Les Miserables.  Considering it’s a 900-page behemoth with small print, this may not surprise you!  As a result, I still have Paris on the brain…and since Marius and Cosette just fell in love, let’s run with that theme.

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I’d like to say I forgot the name of this bridge, but I don’t think I ever actually knew it.  However, I did hear the tradition somewhere–couples put a lock on the bridge and throw the key into the Seine, as a sign of commitment…because the only way to open the lock and end the relationship is (theoretically) to jump into the river and find the key again.  Obviously this is an immensely popular tradition.

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I wanted a close-up, so I fiddled around with the locks to get a good angle on a couple with fun names…kind of makes me wonder who Pierre and Juliette are.

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If you don’t like the lock option, people have carved up all the poor trees along the Seine too.  The sheer number of hearts and initials is staggering…my environmental instincts freak out a bit, while the hopeless romantic in me just goes AWW!

Have a wonderful weekend!  I’ll be forging along through Les Mis…

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