Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

Whoof. Quite a haul, this one.

I enjoyed it a lot, although the digressions took some getting used to. When Jean Valjean takes shelter in a convent, we get 150 pages about the order and the nuns. When two characters meet briefly on the field of Waterloo, it is prefaced by 200 pages of blow-by-blow descriptions of said battle, complete with perhaps a hundred names of French historical figures about whom I hadn't a clue. I found the convent digression interesting; the Waterloo one, not so much.

But the plot carries strongly through all the sidebars, and the only thing that really slowed me down was the Marius-Cosette romance, which is just asinine. At first I thought Hugo was being sarcastic in the endless passages about how pure their love is, to the extent that Marius is furious with Cosette when the wind lifts her dress past her ankle, because he doesn't want to desire her, but after page after page about the beauty of fifteen-year-old virgins so innocent that they blush while getting dressed, and Cosette's tiny little feet, and all the men in her life approvingly referring to her conversation as "babbling", I realized this was not sarcasm. Seriously, Hugo, if your romantic heroine makes your reader long for one written by Dickens, you've really gone too far. And the last, oh, 300 pages (it's hard to tell, because I read this on my Kindle) was just the Fantastically Pure Love of Marius and Cosette, so that was rough on me. (Hugo even says, more than once, that the wonder of a wedding night lies in how terrified the virgin bride is. Yikes.)

So, the love story: blah. Éponine is much more interesting (and though I have never seen the musical, I do know that she gets all the good songs [my shower rendition of "On My Own" is, shall we say, remarkable], so clearly the writers of the musical at least agreed with me). The barricade and the flight through the sewers (complete with a 150-page introduction to the history of Paris' sewers) were exciting, but personally my favorite parts were the pastoral ones. The long descriptions of life in small French towns. The loving, occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny character studies. These parts reminded me a lot of Trollope, and I enjoyed them thoroughly.

In all (and sorry about the rambling review, but I have a head cold), I liked it a lot, with the major exception of the love story. And reading it on the Kindle was really fun. Maybe I will give The Hunchback of Notre-Dame a try! Or maybe not.

Next up: I'm almost done with Ian Rankin's A Good Hanging, which was perfect plane reading. After that, I think A Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman.

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