This book was a beast which took me the entirety of the month to get through but it was oh-so-worth it. I listened to this primarily as, once again, my physical and audio versions were different translations; the Penguin edition is Norman Denny and the Naxos audio translation is Isabel F. Hapgood. As a result, I generally stuck to the audio version because flip-flopping between the two translations was quite confusing! Also, it is worth saying that I went in to this book knowing practically nothing. I haven’t seen any adaptation of it as I always knew I wanted to read the book first. This book is incredible and trying to condense all my feeling in to a concise review has been a challenge!
Everything in this book was incredible. The plot was enormous and spanned so many things, but more than anything this was a character study. This was definitely more character driven than plot driven and I loved that! The characters were so rounded and real, their struggles felt believable, I believed in this people and even the characters I hated were equally as fascinating. Jean Valjean, really being the main character, is the one I felt most invested in and his story, this book, really did wrench my heart at times. The first part of this book, with Fantine, had me in tears at more than one point! His struggles over the course of the novel, the two sides of him conflicting, is a really interesting read and one I am so, so glad I finally got around to.
In the end I rated this book 4 stars. I’ve read some long books in my time, most of them are incredible. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason. This book was one of them but… I wasn’t compelled to keep picking this up. If I didn’t pick it up for 2 or 3 days I didn’t feel I missed it. Don’t misunderstand me, when I was reading this book I didn’t want to put it down but I also didn’t have the desire to keep picking it up (as I did with The Count of Monte Cristo). A big book is a commitment and it has to have the momentum to keep you going and, this didn’t really. My main issues with this book were that I found myself lost at times as Hugo does like to go off on extreme tangents which last a considerable amount of time. It’s that reason why I found myself not really engaging 100% with it while I was reading it. Some of these tangents were really interesting, I really enjoyed some of them but I think I would, and could, have got just as much out of an abridged version and I really hate myself for thinking that! This book is as much about French history and philosophy as it is about Jean Valjean and some of that was very much appreciated!
If you love a big book, if you want to make a commitment for an indeterminate period of time, I do recommend this book. However, if you want a more fast paced French epic, definitely pick The Count of Monte Cristo up over this. Maybe this is one where familiarity would be a good thing and having seen the musical or the movie would have been of benefit, who knows? All I know is I enjoyed it and I am most certainly a convert to French classic literature!