There's a lot I could say about this book...first of all, that it is not for the faint of heart. This was 1200 pages jam-packed with compelling plot and character development, generous amounts of philosophizing and going off on tangents (what is it with Hugo and the Battle of Waterloo??), fascinating descriptions, and understated eloquence. You name a subject, Hugo probably mentions it in Les Misèrables. This is a book of epic proportions, especially theme-wise. He covered everything from street slang in Paris to the history of the sewer system, from life in a convent to the romanticism of poor law students. All within the frame of a thrilling plot about love, death, vengeance, justice, and redemption.
Some interesting points about Les Misèrables:
It's long. I know I already said this, but it merits saying more than once. It took me months to read, and not because I lacked interest. Surprisingly, though, it's not lengthy because it was serialized, like many books were.
It was written over a space of about twenty years. Victor Hugo finished the first draft in 1848, then didn't touch it for twelve years. It was finally completed in 1862. Within the novel you can see how the passage of time served to let the author's ideas mature and his writing develop into a uniquely concise and keen eloquence.
It's sprinkled with scores of perfect quotes. One peculiarity of Hugo's writing style is that sometimes (actually rather often) he ends a paragraph with a brief but incisive statement, thus leaving the present topic. It makes for numerous little gems and a lot of food for thought. Often I read one of these, put the book down, and pondered on just that one sentence for a while. I tried to find an example, but it's hard to wade through that much writing.
It has an overarching theme of hope, which Victor Hugo expertly lets bleed through every incident in the novel. It is called Les Misèrables, but it does not by any means give an impression of despair. Quite the contrary. Hugo was a master at theme.
It is incredibly detailed. As stated above. Have you ever wanted to know the life story of the bishop who has about three minutes of screen time in the movie? Did you ever wish you had a 50-page report on the Battle of Waterloo, emphasizing the role of the weather in the outcome of that battle? Or wondered about the Argot slang of Paris's criminals? Or wanted to know the history of Paris's sewer system, plus be treated to the author's opinion on said sewer system? And let's not even mention the smaller deviations. In fact, these feats of un-plot-related treatise earned themselves a T-shirt.
Excess of zeal on the part of Gavroche
What to do in a bottomless pit except talk?
Questions that may be contained in a revelation
An aspirant centenarian
The goblin appears to Marius
The hatching of crimes in the incubator of prison
A group which nearly became historic
Just a sampling.
The plot is dramatic. For those of you who have seen the movie, you may be of the opinion that the drama was supplied entirely by the music and the cinematography. And you'd be right...about the movie. But the book is a different story. (See what I did there?) I especially remember one episode which I thought would make a great movie on its own. But the writers of the musical seemed to think it unnecessary.
It's worth the commitment to read. If you're going to read Les Misèrables, please don't flake out and skip all the random stuff. (See above.) It may not technically add to the plot, but it's fabulous writing nevertheless, plus it gives a great picture of 19th-century France and Victor Hugo's opinions on, well, everything. You won't regret slogging through that 50-page account of Waterloo when you get to the end. One of the things I like about the fact that it's such a commitment to read, is that it gives you a sense of going through it all with the characters. The plot spans decades, and reading all 1200 pages ensures you don't miss a minute of those decades. Plus, why not read more great writing? More room means more worldbuilding, character development, and plot twists.
You should read it. You may not have known this when you started reading this blog post, but it's true. I don't know why teachers don't make their students read Les Misèrables in literature class. It's certainly got enough substance. In addition to being entertaining, didactic, thought-provoking, and cathartic.