Les Miserables / Victor Hugo

This book is considered by many to be the best novel written during the 19th Century.  I cannot give it that high of an accolade, but Hugo deserves kudos for creating such an ambitious, sweeping epic.  It certainly has stood the test of time.  The story opens in 1815 and covers the span of years through 1832.  Its various plot lines build and converge with the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.  The book’s major strength is Hugo’s unflinching portrayal of the time period’s poverty.  Its biggest weakness is the author’s frequent use of moral essays and historical asides, which disrupt the story’s flow.  While they are sometimes of interest, such as the author’s lengthy discussion of the Battle of Waterloo, often they simply drown the reader in pointless detail and seem to flaunt the author’s encyclopedic knowledge.  The main character here is Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who has broken parole, and the book traces his quest for spiritual redemption.  His counterpoint is Inspector Javert, the police detective who is trying to track him down.  Javert is a man who sees the law as black and white, with no mitigating circumstances allowed.  The love story embedded in this historical novel centers around the young girl Valjean adopts as his daughter, Cossette, and a rebellious, idealistic young man named Marius Pontmercy.  While the story builds to the 1832 Rebellion, I was surprised how pointless the uprising turned out to be.  In the end, it has little impact on the French society of the time.  Even Marius, who takes part in it, seems to dismiss the event totally from his mind afterwards.  Without a doubt Les Miserables presents many highlights for the reader to enjoy, and its length should not deter one.   Despite its frequent digressions, this tale of the Parisian underworld, and the battle between good and evil, captures both the intellect and the heart.

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