The story of Jean Valjean set in 1840s France has captured imaginations worldwide. Rising from a slave condemned to the galleys for stealing bread to a respected town Mayor is not without its dangers, as he is pursued by the powerful and narrow-minded Inspector Javert. While poverty-stricken citizens try to reignite the fires of the French Revolution against a background of oppression and despair, the novel is fraught with violence but also rejoices in love, friendship and the art of following your heart.
Les Misérables is completely different from any other book I have ever read. Unlike most modern books, Victor Hugo is not only concerned with the story immediately surrounding his characters, but with creating an accurate picture of the entire country and time period in which the story takes place. At times, this can make the book feel a little frustrating and long-winded.
However, there is space for a great deal of character development, complex relationships, and evocative description in 1400 pages! Consequently, I became hypnotically immersed in the life of Jean Valjean and the atmosphere of post-revolutionary France. I felt a genuine sense of loss after turning the final pages.
Although it takes some motivation, I really do believe that Les Mis is a book worth reading. So with that in mind, here are my 9 tips to help you reach the finish line:
Familarise yourself with the history.
You don’t need to be an expert, but a basic understanding of the history of the French Revolution was certainly helpful when reading Les Misérables. This SparkNotes page has a very readable summary.
Make a character list.
There are a lot of characters in the book, some of which reappear having not been mentioned for a long time. To help me keep track, I had a piece of paper tucked in the front of my Kindle, to scribble a few notes on who was who! I think this process itself was useful, but if you want to take a shortcut and use my list, you can download it here:
Break it up.
If you are someone who gets bored reading the same story for a very long time (it took me almost two months to read Les Mis), then who says you have to read it all in one go? I took a hiatus to read shorter books at 25%, 50% and 75%. This strategy really helped to give my brain a break, as Les Mis is more mentally taxing than most books I have read.
Keep going through the tangents.
At times, you might become baffled by what the Battle of Waterloo or life in a convent has got to do with anything. Persevere through these digressions – they are always revealed to be relevant to the story eventually!
Skim if necessary.
Having said that, if you are desperate to get back to the story, then I don’t think you would miss much key information by skim reading through Victor Hugo’s tangents. Look out for recognisable character names to flag up when the book has returned to its main story.
If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.~ Victor Hugo, ‘Les Misérables’
I read Les Mis with a friend from my book club so that we could chat to each other about it and motivate each other to keep reading. If you can’t find a reading buddy then comment below or find me on Goodreads. I’d love to talk about the book with you!
Pick your moment.
As Les Mis is such a long book, it may not be a good idea to start reading when you are crazy busy with work, study deadlines etc… Try and choose a period when you’ll have some time to properly get stuck into the story. I read the first half of the book on holiday when I had loads of time to read, which was fantastic to give me a head start!
A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.~ Victor Hugo, ‘Les Misérables’
If you are a very goal-orientated person, set a plan e.g. how many pages you want to read every week. I aimed for 3% on my Kindle every day but was quite loose with this. If I didn’t manage to reach my daily target I would just try to read a bit more the next day.
Les Misérables is a truly epic and unique story – reading it shouldn’t become a chore! Don’t force yourself to read it if you’re not in the mood, take your time, and relish the moments you spend in the world of Jean Valjean…
You can get Les Misérables via Amazon UK and Amazon US – or why not try listening to a full-cast dramatisation on Audible?
Alternatively, support independent bookshops and ethical retailers with these links:
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If you’re looking for another immersive classic, I can highly recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
Have you read Les Misérables? What did you think? Do you have any tips that helped you finish the book? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!