Samantha's Reviews > Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
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really liked it
Read 2 times. Last read July 13, 2018 to August 6, 2018.

It's not often that I read a book already knowing the entire plot ahead of time. But that's the position I was in this time, thanks to my history as a band and chorus nerd. If you ever wondered if the musical is loyal to the source material, I can tell you that it definitely is.

This is a story on an epic scale, with an extensive cast and a long time line. Each of the threads has its own poignancy, and Hugo deftly weaves them all together showing how all these stories impact one another.

Les Miserables is definitely a novel of its time in structure. If you don't read a lot of 19th century works, certain things may take you aback. I do read a fair number of 19th century novels, and even I had to laugh at how lengthy some of the side tangents became. The entire first book (14 chapters) existed just to introduce the bishop who sets our protagonist on the road to good, a character who is very minor in the overall scheme of things. I think I could rewrite it in a single phrase: "There was once a very good priest."

There are nineteen chapters about Waterloo, with political analysis and battle strategy. I never did figure out what they really had to do with anything. Napoleon's shadow may have loomed large, but I didn't understand how all this history impacted the current storyline. Two characters were there, but any connection between them and this historical treatise was lost on me.

Another four chapters on French street slang (those were a delight, even though I understand very little French). Yet another section on the sewers (startling!).

I'm sure that these tangents are what the abridged editions abridge, keeping the story more solidly with the characters and the immediate plot. It's what a modern writer would do, were she to take on the writing of this novel. But digressions of this sort are very 19th century--they reminded me of Moby Dick in that way, where the entire story just stops for a while so we can have a long talk about whales and whaling.

Still, while those sections may seem like mere digressions, in some ways they are the very heart of the book and contribute to its endurance. Having read this novel, I feel as though I have a very full picture of the time period and the forces at play during it. Several of the characters' actions wouldn't play as believably if Hugo had not taken the time to explain the context. A nineteenth century novelist was also a scholar, analyst, and historian.

The book is very long. I started to feel like someone ought to award me a trophy when I reached the finish line. But I don't regret the time reading it. There's much that will stick with me. I felt and thought deeply, two things I'm always hoping a book will make me do.

The book is very well named in that nearly everyone is miserable in one way or another. As social commentary, the novel has quite a bit to say about the evil we do to one another, intentionally and thoughtlessly. But it all comes together beautifully in the end, with redemption and hope for the future.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 25, 2009 – Shelved
July 13, 2018 – Started Reading
August 6, 2018 – Finished Reading

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