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.