I suppose one sign of a good book is that you can’t get it out of your head. I recently finished Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and can’t stop thinking about it. Luckily it’s been made into a musical (and, luckily, I’m near London) and movie, so I can keep re-experiencing it in times to come.
A few thoughts on the book:
1) I have never been more convinced of the value of abridged versions. I read an unabridged version of this book, and there were some parts that were just agonizing. The problem was not that some sections were slow but that they were totally irrelevant for today’s audience. For example, chapter one of the third book “The Year 1817” is a chapter of namedropping, but no one (at least outside of France) remembers most of these people:
The year 1817 was the one Louis XVIII, with a certain royal presumption not devoid of stateliness, called the twenty-second year of his reign. It was the year of M. Bruguiére de Sorsum’s fame. All the hairdressers’ shops, hoping for the return of powder and birds of paradise, were bedecked with azure and fleur-de-lis. It was the candid time when Comte Lynch sat every Sunday as churchwarden on the official bench at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés, dressed as a peer of France, with his red ribbon and long nose and that majesty of profile preculiar to a man who has done a brilliant deed. The brilliant deed committed by M. Lynch was that, being mayor of Bordeaux on March 12, 1814, he had surrendered the city a little too soon to the Duke of Angoulême. Hence his peerage. In 1817 it was the fashion to engulf little boys from four to six years old in large morocco caps with earflaps similar to Eskimo stovepipes. The French army was dressed in white in Austrian style; regiments were called legions and wore, instead of numbers, the names of the Départements. Napolean was at St. Helena and, as England would not give him green material, had had his old coats turned. In 1817, Pellegrini sang, Mademoiselle Brigottini danced, Potier reigned, Odry did not yet exist, Madame Saqui succeeded Forioso. There were still Prussians in France. M. Delalot was a celebrity. Legitimacy had just asserted itself by cutting off the fist and then the head of Pleignier, Carbonneau, and Tolleron.
That is the first page of this chapter (and, actually, only about half a page due to the chapter heading), and it goes on and on. Little of this helps me piece together the time, and almost none of it is relevant for the story. Hugo must have liked the way he strung together words, because these sections were long. They never appear as quick chapters to get you oriented before returning to the story. Instead, they’re sometimes 60 or 70 pages.
2) That being said, this book was excellent. I cried multiple times. I was really wrapped up in it, which is why I got so annoyed when these long digressions about fashion or sewers cropped up. I’m not going to go over the plot (if you don’t know it, you can find it elsewhere), but I was simply heartbroken when my favorite characters died.
I’d definitely recommend Les Misérables, even if you’ve seen the musical or movie. From what Z tells me, a lot of great characters in the book hardly appear in the musical. I might advise an abridged version, though, unless you’re interested in a not-very-useful history of France.
AMENDMENT: Due to the conversation w/ Danny found in the comments section of this post, I retract my recommendation of the abridged version of Les Misérables. If it is only 1/3 the length of the original, then too much was cut out.