We’ll Always Have Paris: Your Bookseller’s Guide To Les Misérables

On September 9th, Eleanor Sullivan will be joining us at our Central West End store to talk about her new Singular Villages mystery, Graven Images. Here’s a thing you need to know about Eleanor Sullivan: she claims Les Misérables as one of the five Broadway shows that changed her life.

Here’s a thing you need to know about me: I am obsessed with Les Misérables.

As my coworkers know all too well, I actually can’t shut up about it. I’ve watched the musical more times than I care to admit. I saw the movie four times in theaters. Some version of the soundtrack is a permanent fixture in my car’s CD player. My dream cast involves an actor that sings entirely in Spanish. My favorite character is, 50% of the time, not even said by name in the libretto. I’m currently in the middle of reading two different translations of the book.  My cat’s name is Valjean.

That’s how far gone I am, friends.

This summer, the Muny is doing a production of Les Misérables, and you might plan on going to see it (I highly recommend it, as my personal dream cast member Norm Lewis is playing Javert). I’m here to tell you that before you do, you should really read up.

Are you crazy?! you ask. You want me to read a 1400 page novel by July?!

Not….necessarily. You have options.

For Newbies (to the show):

ImageSaw the movie in theaters and can’t seem to get enough of Fantine and co.? Check out Les Misérables: From Stage To Screen. This gorgeous and fairly comprehensive guide tracks the show from its conception through Broadway runs, international productions, touring companies, and anniversary specials, concluding with a rundown of the making of the Oscar-nominated film. What’s really special about this book, though, is that it has pockets chock full of replica memorabilia, from ticket stubs to posters to original costume sketches to libretto samples (with director’s notes!) to movie call sheets. This is your one-stop-shop for catching up with all things musical.

For Newbies (to this world):

Want to share your love of Les Misérables with your young children, but don’t think they’re quite ready for Hugo’s classic novel? Cozy Classics has an absolutelyCozy Classics adorable board book version, illustrated with beautiful needle-felted figures, that gets the point across in a lot fewer words, while helping teach your children about such important thematic elements as “Poor,” “Run,” and, of course, the central message of Les Mis, “Love.”

For Newbies (to the novel):

Les Mis SignetYou’ve seen the musical, you’ve seen the movie, and now, you think you’re ready to give the novel a try. Maybe you attempted to read it in high school, and balked at its length (or you had to return it to the library before you could finish). I would suggest reading the Signet Classics paperback edition, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. It’s the edition I started with, and retains all the elegance of Hugo’s prose without making it dense and unreadable. Plus, shorter chapters for easy breaking points! Trust me, it’s a book you’ll want to stop occasionally and reflect on for a while before picking up again. It’s not abridged, so you’ll still have to wade through the 100 page digressions on the Battle of Waterloo and the Paris sewer system, but you’ll also emerge with a much better understanding of your favorite musical characters, the June Rebellion (not the French Revolution!), and the story’s central message of optimism, love, and redemption. (Also, getting through Waterloo is like a badge of honor. They should make t-shirts!).

For Seasoned Veterans:

Have you, like me, seen countless viewings of the musical, film, and have already torn through the book at least once? Time to pick up the Word Cloud Classics edition! Les Mis CloudNot only will it look spectacular sitting on your bookshelf, but the translation by Isabel Hapgood is a bit loftier, probably reminiscent of the prose of Hugo’s day, and will make for some fascinating comparisons to the Signet Classics translation. Plus, no matter the translation, your second reading of Les Mis is always more fun, and more revealing, than your first!

See? You have options. Don’t think of Les Mis as that book your professor wanted you to read in college and you Spark Noted (and after all, you’d already seen the musical). Think of it as delving into a complex and fascinating new (old) world, full of remarkable characters and themes still entirely resonant today, that you’ve only scratched the surface of. That’s the wonderful thing about Les Misérables: 150 years later, and there’s still more to see, more to talk about, more to learn, that’s just as fascinating now as it was then.

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