Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

C’est finis.

Apologies for not updating last week, I fell a little behind but by god I did it. I read Les Miserables in one month and can now put it away as soon as this review is written.

The Good:

I love Jean Valjean and the Bishop and the friends of the A B C (though we barely see them) (also RIP) and Cosette(ish) and Gavroche. The writing is beautiful. Many of the characters are compelling. There are many salient points made that strike a chord over two hundred years later. I’m genuinely glad I read it and it will be in my thoughts for some time. I felt almost sad when I finished it simply because it’s been something I did every day for a whole month and feel a weird kind of bond with it now. Call it appreciating literature or call it stockholm syndrome, some combination of the both is probably apt.

The Not So Good:

Oh Victor. Victor Victor Victor. In all my years of reading I have never yelled at an author like this. I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you. You showed promise in how you wrote Fantine and then Cosette came and the ball has never been dropped harder.

Cosette essentially has no voice until after she marries Marius and even then it’s to note that she is being excluded. The relationship between her and Marius is bad from literally its first moment when he identifies her as a child and then suddenly becomes obsessed with her and literally stalks her. Victor does a lot of hand waving with that relationship telling us “they’re in love because that’s how it is for youths.” When I was ranting to my fiance about my disappointment in the relationship that is regarded as The Love Story in the novel, he suggested it may have been intentional to make a point about love being silly but I don’t think that’s it. I have not read any biographies of Victor Hugo so please don’t come for me if there’s some Vast Tragic Context but I just don’t think he understands romance or relationships. I am not expecting this to be a romance novel by any means but if you are going to write in a couple and declare that they are In Love… that’s just not enough. I need them to speak to each other first. I need them to consent to meeting. I need them to not make practically every single choice Marius makes. And while we’ve got Marius here…

Marius Pontmercy is one of my least favorite literary characters of all time. The few times he grows a spine it’s to support the most ridiculous and self-righteous standards he inherited from a man he never met based on stories from another man he only met by chance. He “adores” Cosette but he also lies to her until he makes the judgment that Valjean is worthy of associating with. He goes to the Cafe Musain once, spouts bullshit and has his ass handed to him and then doesn’t return until he decides to use the revolution as a convenient tool to die by suicide. I will never forgive him for parting Cosette and Jean Valjean and in short he is dead to me.

Final Thoughts:

This book was both better than and as bad as I anticipated. I’d heard about the meandering and the sewers. I wish he’d swapped some ancient history of sites for more interactions with the Friends of the A B C who are grievously underutilized. I wish Cosette had been given more of a voice. I wish he hadn’t slapped in a dash of the ol’ antisemitism near the end. I wish many things but I was also surprised by how much the book did move me. I got teary towards the end as Valjean was dying and I was genuinely sad when Gavroche died and my heart ached when he was taking care of his (unbeknownst to him) little brothers. I’m glad that I read it.

I have a bit of a book hangover but next up for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge I’ll be reading Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts and I’m still working my way through A Daring Arrangement by Joanna Shupe for the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. See you next week!

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Volume II. Cosette

I don’t fuck with ouija boards but reading the first Book of Volume II, Waterloo, made me want to summon Hugo just so I could make him defend his decision to spend an entire book rehashing Napoleon’s defeat purely to introduce us in the last moments to Cosette’s future love interest’s father. I’m sure there are other important French history reasons for this, but I remain bitter.

The second, surprisingly short book covers how Jean Valjean was taken back into imprisonment but escaped after saving someone’s life and faking his own death.

The third is where we finally bring Cosette into the main narrative. Cosette and Jean Valjean find each other in the dark woods. She feels safe with him and he feels drawn to protect her even before he figures out who she is, and it reinforced that this is a story about many things, most of all family. I love a good found family trope and while I suspect I won’t be too invested in her and Marius’s relationship later on, I have many feelings about Jean Valjean and Cosette. In the words of Victor Hugo:

“One, in fact, completed the other. Cosette’s instinct sought a father, as Jean Valjean’s instinct sought a child. To meet was to find each other.”

A modern equivalent in many ways is probably Hopper and Eleven in Stranger Things, down to the whole ‘reuniting in the woods’ and ‘running from the law’ stuff. Oh man, there’s a whole essay waiting right there.

Through the rest of Cosette’s volume it covers their narrow escape from Javert into a horrifying convent (with a detailed history of the convent of course) which includes some graverobbing. For a volume named after Cosette I was surprised by how little she appeared. Granted, all of the action going on is propelled by Jean Valjean’s fervent effort to protect her and give them both a better life. In many ways she’s been present from the beginning and will be throughout.

The next volume is Marius which I’m currently about halfway through and I have a lot of feelings about him and his whole family history and his flirtation practices. I also have many feelings about the Friends of the A B C, especially my Beloved Enjolras. Look forward to that next week and take care.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Volume I. Fantine

I decided to do my reviewing of The Brick by volume to keep me on track and to make it easier to remember what I felt about it. I feel like most people know Les Miserables to some extent, if only by the musical. I’ve wanted to read it since I got into the musical years ago, especially with the 2012 adaptation by Tom Hooper.

Volume I is titled Fantine but most of it is spent with the Bishop of D_ and Jean ValJean. The Bishop is a fascinating character. I don’t fault the adaptors for cutting his part way down, there are many parts where I feel like I would only understand what’s happening if I had a better knowledge of French history. He was in a family that narrowly escaped the Revolution (his only souvenir of that time of his life are his silverware and silver candlesticks) and he becomes this humble, benevolent Bishop who is considered pious to a fault but still beloved. He has an interesting experience with a man who had supported the execution of King Louis XVI. He is uncharacteristically severe and angry with him but is forced to acknowledge that it isn’t as black and white as “killing people is bad” when the people in question are the direct source of death and suffering for many others. The Bishop allows himself to be changed by this experience, something we don’t often see religious figures in novels do.

Jean ValJean’s story is much the same as in the book. Hugo does an excellent job illustrating how horribly broken the “justice” system was (and in many ways still is) and how damned people are through poverty and merciless systems. There are many sentences or phrases I’ve highlighted in my copy because through the dense prose there are some really beautifully descriptive pieces. Hugo is a genuinely good writer. He is a good writer who was clearly being paid by the word, but I can’t fault him for making his money.

When we meet Fantine it actually offers a small backstory for how she gets pregnant with Cosette. Novels I read from this time period in lit classes were always pretty severe with women who “fell from grace” or “ruined” themselves so it was interesting reading a contemporary of Dickens, Hardy, and Trollope write about a woman who has premarital sex and doesn’t describe her resulting circumstances as a reflection of her poor morals but rather the way society has failed her. He is critical of her lover who intentionally abandons her and the many people who continue this abandonment and debasement. He definitely has a bit of an infantilizing eye on women, and we do see some Madonna/Whore stuff going on as he writes pretty stark characterizations of women, but I still found this noteworthy.

Javert was another very interesting character and for once I wished Hugo would write more than he did. He describes the character being born and raised among the same miserables that the rest of the story is dedicated to. Unlike ValJean who views mercy as a kindness and a duty of humanity, Javert views mercy as an unfair farce and his only redeeming(?) quality is that he is as severe with himself as he is with others. There is no hypocrisy in this character, but there is also no charity. I pity him but also I would have dismissed him ASAP if I were Jean ValJean.

I am currently in Volume II. Cosette which began with a thorough description of the battle of Waterloo but we have finally reached the titular character and things are already picking up speed. If I keep reading 50 pages a day as planned, I should be done by the end of the month. I’m going to plan to keep a weekly review of whatever volumes I get through and then give an overall impression at the end.

This volume was pretty appropriately miserable but it sets the foundation for where all of these next characters are coming from/escaping and I’m looking forward to getting into more about the rebels. Other than Les Mis, I am currently reading Twice Tempted, the sequel to the Dracula romance I read last year, so be on the lookout for that review next week!

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2021

Creator: Elijah Forbes

Oh hello there.

I disappeared shortly after The Troubles began because I simply stopped reading. Some of my friends coped with this year by reading even more, I delved into writing fanfiction. We all find our way.

I made a pretty decent dent in the BRRHC for 2020 but I am here with a new syllabus and new determination for BRRHC 2021:

  1. Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read – Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  2. Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism – Fatal Invention, Dorothy Roberts
  3. Read a non-European novel in translation – Our Lady of the Nile, Scholastique Mukasonga
  4. Read an LGBTQ+ history book – Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Eva Cantarella
  5. Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author – The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones
  6. Read a fanfic – TBD
  7. Read a fat-positive romance – Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade
  8. Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author – Reverb, Anna Zabo
  9. Read a middle grade mystery – A Spy in the House, Y.S. Lee
  10. Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color – Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, ed. Sheree R. Thomas
  11. Read a food memoir by an author of color – The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, Michael W. Twitty
  12. Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color – Explaining Humans, Camilla Pang
  13. Read a book with a cover you don’t like – Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, Emma Donoghue
  14. Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada – A Girl Like That, Tanaz Bhathena
  15. Read a memoir by a Latinx author – My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education, Jennine Capó Crucet
  16. Read an own voices book about disability – Run, Kody Keplinger
  17. Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain – If It Makes You Happy, Claire Kann
  18. Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader – Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff
  19. Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist – Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters
  20. Read a book of nature poems – A Thousand Mornings: Poems, Mary Oliver
  21. Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability – Hands & Hearts, Donna Jo Napoli
  22. Read a book set in the Midwest – Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  23. Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness – Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love, and Loss, Stephanie Wittels Wachs
  24. Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die – The Familiars, Stacy Halls

All books are subject to change via DNFing or difficulty accessing them.