Tuesday, November 27, 2012

#BookReview: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★   |   Obtained from: Personal Library   |   Read: Multiple Occasions
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Eponine: Happiness I've Never Known
© ThreshTheSky, Used with Artist's Permission
How does one review Victor Hugo's Les Misérables with any measure of justice? Perhaps the better question is can one do the book justice at all? I sincerely doubt I possess the aptitude for such an undertaking though with the impending release of the newest film adaptation, I admit the novel is often on my mind. A staple of my personal library, the story has ranked among my all-time favorites for more than a decade and I could resist the temptation to revisit it.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to say I read the abridged version three times before attempting the unabridged version and I really can't recommend one over the other. The story itself holds a special place in my heart, but I have absolutely nothing against this period of French history and loved every minute I spent with the original. I suppose which version you read depends on personal taste, how far you're willing to deviate from the central story line to explore period politics and themes, but if the question is to read or not to read, the answer is most definitely to read.

Les Misérables is one of those rare stories that truly withstands the test of time. I know that sounds pompous, but that doesn't make it any less true. First published in 1862 Hugo’s representation of the human condition is as relevant today as it was when it was penned. Valjean's compassionate nature, Fantine's intense maternal devotion and Javert's ardent dedication and strict sense of duty are moving are moving and intensely relatable. Even in their most desperate moments, readers can recognize something of themselves in Hugo's cast.

The story is a tragedy, but unlike Shakespeare's work, Hugo's epic is hauntingly beautiful. Like it or not, the human experience can't be packaged in a decadently wrapping box and neatly given to anyone. Injustice, class conflict, the struggle for basic rights, heartbreak... these are powerful concepts, uncomfortable, but powerful and no one brings them to life quite like Hugo.

I'll grant it's intimidating, but 
Les Misérables is more than worth the effort. An absolute must read.

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The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories, that it has come to be disbelieved in. Few people dare now to say that two beings have fallen in love because they have looked at each other. Yet it is in this way that love begins, and in this way only.
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