Book Review: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

cover to les misérables
© Signet Classics, 1987.

Synopsis:


“Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.” (Source: Goodreads)

Review:


I’ve put off actually writing the Les Misérables review for a few days, mostly for the purpose of chewing on the contents of the book and my rating. (Not literally of course. Besides, fiber is bad for me.) Ultimately, I chose my gut instinct and stuck with my initial impression: three out of five stars. If you want to know why, read on.

Disclaimer: I know this book and its play has many die-hard fans. Before beginning my review, I posted my rating on Facebook and surprised several of my friends. That said, I feel it is necessary to remind my readers that this is my own opinion and should not, in any form or fashion, affect your own if you’ve read the book. Ultimately, I recommend this title to anyone. I really wanted to rate this higher than I did, but I couldn’t bring myself to set aside my personal preferences with books to do this.

Les Misérables translates into many phrases, the most commonly used of which is The Miserable Ones. This name is a spot on description for what readers will encounter as they traverse this large volume. In fact, it’s why I chose to read it. (I’m not shy about admitting my sick and twisted delight in the suffering of fictional characters.) Suffice to say, I finished the book in tears. That’s a good thing. I also found many of the characters to be admirable and realistic, down to the overly obsessive Javert and the knave Thenardier. So why, then, did I take away two stars?

First and foremost, while I appreciate history, I don’t care for large chunks of a book to be filled with it. Hundreds of pages in Les Misérables are filled with exposition. The sort that, on nights when my high dosages of prednisone would not let me sleep, I would flip open to as a sleep aid. For something to be that boring to me is a feat. For that reason alone I could not give this book a five star rating (or skulls, if you go by how I score on my site). If, like me, countless pages of text-book grade history material are a turn-off, I highly recommend picking up the abridged version of this book. On the other hand, I’m sure history buffs love this aspect of Les Misérables.

Secondly, there are many instances of this book that are simply unbelievable. While part of me wants to argue that Jean Valjean’s punishment of 19 years in the galley for theft of a loaf of bread is ridiculous, a little bit of research has turned up that this extreme of a sentence was, in fact, possible in France during the 1800s. Of course, the time added on to that was due to his attempts at escape, which is all well and fair, I guess. What really and truly irks me is the sheer amount of coincidence that takes place. After reading Les Misérables, Paris feels like a small town. I really, really don’t want to reveal spoilers as to how there is simply too much coincidence, so trust me on that one. If you’ve already read it, then you know.

Moving forward, I feel safe to admit that I will likely not re-read this book. I do want to see the musical though, and likely when I wish to revisit this story it’ll be through that adaptation that I do.

Rating: 💀💀💀


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