Number of pages: 1,463
I put off reading this epic novel for years, because I didn't think I would enjoy it. It turned out, I was very wrong - after a slow start, I found myself enjoying it a lot and caring immensely for its three main characters, Jean Valjean, Cossette and Marius.
Jean Valjean is introduced as a petty criminal, and at the start of his storyline, he is (to his amazement) given shelter by a bishop, after most of the town has shunned him because of his criminal tendencies. Although he seems like he should not be a sympathetic character, he immediately becomes a loveable rogue, even when - unable to suppress his kleptomaniac tendencies - he steals the Bishop's silverware. He ends up as a character who seems to be trying to prove that he is no longer a criminal, and can be seen as a valued member of society, although he has to constantly change his identity. Every time that he seems to have vanished completely, he shows up again, and on some occasions I didn't realise a new character was in fact Jean Valjean again until the book made it really obvious.
At the start of her story, Cossette ends up being sent away to a cruel foster family, headed by the main antagonist, Thenardier. His treatment of her is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the story, particularly the portrayal of how Thenarier's daughters are spoiled, and won't even let Cossette play with their dolls.
This book is very long, and is partially padded out by diversions from the author, who sets the scene largely through essays regarding the real-life events and places that influence the plot line, from the Napoleonic wars, to the Parisian sewer system (actually more interesting than it sounds). Victor Hugo also takes a somewhat roundabout way of introducing characters; the entire first chapter is about the Bishop who takes in Jean Valjean, describing his entire life; the bishop only appears right at the start. Likewise, to introduce Cossette, the book first of all includes a chapter about four female characters who arrive in town, one of whom is Fantine, later Cossette's mother. Later in the book, Thenardier saves the life of a soldier, who later on turns out to be Marius' father.
Although the breaks in the narrative got a bit annoying at times, I found that when the main plot was moving forward, it was actually very enjoyable, very exciting at times (mostly seeing Jean Valjean escaping the clutches of his erstwhile nemesis, Javert, who starts off as a dislikeable character, before ending up as someone who I felt surprisingly sympathetic for). There were a lot of bits that were very sad, and moving, particularly towards the book's denouement.
Overall, I was glad I did take the trouble to read this novel, and may well give the musical and/or the recent movie a go as well.
Next book: A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)