I’d seen the musical, sang the songs, and watched the movie, but getting through the 1,463-page volume titled Les Miserables seemed like an overwhelming task. Then I found a summer reading plan on a friend’s blog and made up my mind to follow it. I discovered a gem of a novel that no movie or musical could fully do justice to. I now join those who list it as one of their favorite books of all time.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables follows the story of Jean Valjean, a man who has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. He is released only to break his parole and spend the rest of his life on the run, even after sincerely turning his life around. After vowing to find and protect Cosette, the daughter of dying prostitute Fantine, Valjean has even stronger motivation to remain hidden. His story takes place between 1815 and 1833 during the unsettled years following the French Revolution when the poor continually cried out for justice and relief, often through violent uprisings.

The first thing that struck me was how vividly Victor Hugo weaves in spiritual themes without having his epic read like a long cautionary tale. Jean Valjean stands as both an example of how one wrong choice can impact a person forever and the transforming power of mercy, true repentance and grace. The bishop who pardons Valjean of stealing his silver, and shows up only briefly in the musical and movie, plays a pivotal role in Valjean’s healing process and is a major part of the book’s first section. He is a Christ-like character who offers forgiveness along with encouragement to become a better man—kind of a “Go and sin no more” response. While Javert is presented as the bad guy in stage and film versions, Hugo paints him as a man whose dedication to justice simply will not allow him to let Valjean remain free. However, he clearly becomes so hardened by his legalism that he can’t offer grace or receive it.

Through Fantine we see a painful picture of sin’s consequences as she slowly declines (including physically) from beautiful-but-naive working-class girl, to desperate single mother, to destitute woman of the streets. The Thenardiers personify cruelty and evil (not at all the comic relief that they provide in the musical) while Cosette matures into a picture of purity, even as she struggles with loneliness, growing up and her secret romance with Marius. Other characters like Marius, Gavroche and the brave men at the barricade provide lessons in courage and sacrifice, as well as opportunities to reflect on the sad reality of war and the price that many pay for others’ freedom.

As daunting as this novel appears at first, it would appeal to teens, particularly those who have enjoyed stage or film versions and want to go deeper into the characters and story. Parents and teens might want to read and discuss this book together, with the help of a reading guide. Victor Hugo tends to go on a lot of rabbit trails, breaking from the story to discuss various battles, the street children of Paris and even the Paris sewer system. All have significance but can be glossed over if you’re just reading the story for pleasure. If Les Miserables is assigned reading and a student feels overwhelmed by the book’s thickness, it might help to throw in supplemental materials like Les Miserables: the Dream Cast in Concert.

(To be continued)

Jeanette Hanscome is the author of three books and over 300 articles and stories. In addition to writing, she offers freelancing editing and critiquing to beginning writers, and teaches workshops on the craft. Jeanette lives with her husband and two sons in Reno, Nevada, where she sings with her church choir and worship team, and is known for having a book recommendation for every occasion.