Book Review: Les Miserables

Back in August, I found myself in the wonderful position of being ahead on my reading schedule. I shoot to read a book a week, and I was about 2.5 weeks ahead of where I needed to be to get 52 books read in the year. It was still before the semester started, and so I decided I’d like to try tackling something more difficult. Really push myself. Sure, the stereotypical response to that would have been “Time to read War & Peace,” but I’ve never really had the hankering to tackle that novel. There’s been one I’ve long wanted to read, however, and I thought I’d be able to get it done on time. I’ve always loved the musical adaptation of Les Miserables, and I’d wondered just what they’d done in the adaptation process. Taking the time to read a 1,500 page translation doesn’t just come up every day, though, and I’d never got around to it.

I decided to try it this time.

When reading a translation, I firmly believe the first step is to find the best translation you can get. (Assuming you’re unable to read it in the original language.) So I asked around and did some searching online. There are quite a few translations of Les Mis, and there are advocates for each of them online. In the absence of any real way of gauging which of those conflicting viewpoints I should pay attention to, I did what I typically do in those situations: I turned to a knowledgable friend.

In this case, that friend was Dan Wells, who’s long been a proponent of Les Mis. He’d had such a good experience with the book, I asked him which translation he’d read. He recommended the Fahnestock unabridged version, and so that’s what I went with.

I loved the book, though let me be clear: it was not a fast or easy read. The book is often abridged because Hugo will go on long drawn out explanations of things that relate to the plot only tangentially. The history of the Paris sewers. The entire Battle of Waterloo. The backstory of almost every character ever mentioned in the novel. Long, complex discussions of philosophy and meaning,

Are those sections necessary? Should you read the abridged version instead? That’s a tough question to answer. I believe many of them added to my experience reading the book, but some of them didn’t do much for me. The thought of turning over the decision of which parts are “unimportant” and which aren’t to someone I don’t even know . . . I don’t like the thought of that approach. In the end, I’m very glad I got the unabridged version. Were there parts I skimmed? Yes. But they were parts of my own choosing, just as with any book I read. I loved getting the context of characters, and I found Waterloo fascinating. The sewers were intriguing as well. The philosophy was something I often found myself zipping through, since Hugo has a tendency to say the same thing multiple different ways.

But the characters and the plot of this book? Incredible. I found them moving and engrossing. Much of what happens is intertwined to a point that strains belief, but then you have Hugo’s description of how much of Waterloo came down to decisions that seem far too contrived to make sense, and it all fits together nicely.

I had to really push myself to finish the book on schedule, despite the fact that I really enjoyed it. It was hard reading often, but just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. I loved seeing the connections between the musical, and I was impressed at how they adapted this huge work into something so consumable.

Should you read Les Mis? That depends. I loved it and appreciate it as the work of art that it is. Do I give it a 10, then? I’m not sure. There were parts I skimmed, after all. In the end, I still gave it the perfect score, acknowledging the fact that almost no book I’ve read has made me get anywhere close to tears. (No book has made me cry. Ever.) But this one really moved me, and so taken as an entirety, it was an incredible book. What parts were unnecessary? I’m not sure. Take away any of it, and does the experience lessen? Possibly.

In any case, I’m glad I’ve read it, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a challenging but rewarding read. 10/10. Just give yourself plenty of time.


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