Review of Les Miserables
As many people have already observed, Les Miserables is a flawed novel. The digressions are excessive and sometimes even seem unrelated to the story. Hugo has a maddening tendency to the slow the pace by providing a very lengthy backstory each time a new character or location is introduced. The now-obscure politics are so specific to the time period as to leave most readers today scratching their heads at some point. The coincidences that connect the characters are ridiculous. The characters are, while at times conflicted, never really complex, and the depictions of women are, frankly, often sexist — especially the angelically pretty and good Cosette, who doesn’t have a thought in her head that wasn’t put there by a man. And the first half of the book is far better than the second, despite the undeniable importance of the 1832 revolt to the novel.
And yet… well, how could you finish this unwieldy tome unless you loved it? At times I certainly questioned Hugo’s decisions; for instance, I was actually confused when the first 50 pages were spent describing Monseigneur Bienvenu before Jean Valjean even arrives on the scene — until, to my surprise, I grew to love the character, and by the time JV does arrive, I was able to understand why the bishop made such an impression. Or again, when, right before JV plunges into the sewers of Paris, we are stopped in our tracks with several pages on not just the history of the Paris sewer system but also on how it compares to that of Rome , I was like, seriously, Hugo? We’re in the middle of an action scene! And yet, did I love every bit of that unseemly history? You bet. Even the extremely long digression about the Battle of Waterloo (which, I will admit, I did skim a little) had a pretty meaningful and long-lasting, if brief at the time, payoff at the end. Time and time again, I would realize only in retrospect that the excessive contextualization was enjoyable. I still find the Marius-Cosette love story insufferable, but now that I’ve finished the novel, I find that it’s the digressive nature of the novel — even when it’s repetitive and overdone and excessively detailed — that inspires my fondness for the experience of reading it. (You would think I would know that going in, since I’m a reader who loves a digression, but Hugo really pushes it to the extreme.)
Above anything else for me, the rascally Thenardier–enjoyable in the musical but indispensable to the book–was a surprise. He’s like the cockroach that can survive the nuclear winter: indestructible, adaptable, forever lurking in the shadows. If nothing else made me turn the page, it was the promise of his return and the havoc he would wreak–or the unintentional joy he would bring.