Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

I don't know where to start. I've been reading the unabridged version of this book since Christmas. I bought it years ago, having loved the musical, and thinking that I needed to read the actual BOOK at some point. I was nervous about reading it, as I've adored the musical since college, and was afraid it wouldn't measure up. But I needn't have worried. Victor Hugo was a man after my own heart. And Jean Valjean is truly a hero for the ages.

For those who don't know the story, Jean Valjean is a convict, the lowest of the low in Parisian society. He was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's child, and then further imprisoned for his escape attempts. When he finally is released, he cannot find even a room in which to lay his head - no one wants a former convict in their abode. A kind bishop gives him lodging for the night, and Jean Valjean, disowned and dishonored by society, repays this man's kindness by attempting to steal the only thing of value in the bishop's home, his silverware and candlesticks. Instead of turning him in to the law, the bishop tells the police that he gave the items to Jean Valjean. And Valjean's redemption is begun.

He turns over a new leaf, invents a new identity for himself, and sets about trying to atone for his previous wrongs. He saves the abused child of a former prostitute, invents a new process for manufacturing jet accoutrements (very much in vogue at the time), and eventually becomes mayor of a small town, Montreuil-sur-Mer. But the law, in the person of a police inspector named Javert, is stalking Valjean, for a crime committed shortly after his release. And the punishment will be the rest of his life in prison.

The book follows Valjean from personality to personality, identity to identity, as the child Cosette grows, as the young man Marius falls in love with her, from Montreuil-sur-Mer to Paris, culminating in an assault on the barricades of Paris during the revolt of 1832. Les Mis explores good and evil, the injustice of the justice system, the politics of revolution, and the redemptive power of love. The novel's structure was interesting - the story of Jean Valjean interspersed with tangential rantings on various topics - the nature of war and revolution, language, the penal system, the history of the sewers of Paris...

I cannot express how much I truly enjoyed this book. I am a criminal defense attorney, and Victor Hugo shares many of my ideas regarding the criminal justice system. To find that these ideas have remained the same for almost 200 years is both frightening and galvanizing. I have known many Jean Valjeans in my time. I have worked within the broken system for years. I have done my best to save those Jean Valjeans, to maintain what balance there is within our ultimate system of right and wrong. Sometimes I did, sometimes I couldn't. Every defense attorney hopes for the type of redemption Valjean experiences within the pages of this book, but few are lucky enough to really see it come to fruition.

I'd give the book four out of five Whatevers. I probably should have read the abridged version, just for Jean Valjean's story. The interspersed essays were valuable on their own, but they detracted somewhat from the storyline. I would have probably preferred to read most of them in an essay collection, instead of the novel. I found myself sobbing through the final two chapters of the book, something that doesn't happen often. Recommended for classics lovers, francophiles, and anyone who believes in love.


***I actually finished this book mid-April, but Blogger was being an asshole and wouldn't let me post my review.  I just remembered to post it today.

1 comment:

Literary Feline said...

I began reading this book one summer when in college and once school started, had to set it aside. I never managed to get back to it. I really really want to read it still (although I will definitely need to start over given how many years have passed). I loved what I did read. I'm a huge fan of the musical as well. I am glad to hear you enjoyed it so much!