While on the surface, Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean and the poor’s struggle for relief, character relationships take center stage. In addition to the many spiritual themes, readers will discover both good and sobering examples of romance and family life.

The first relationship that we witness is Fantine’s romance with a wealthy playboy who, along with his friends, is showing four working-class girls the ways of the world. For Fantine this is her first love. For Tholomyes she is just another pretty girl. When the affair ends, we discover that she has his child. Fantine becomes a tragic example of blind infatuation and the slow spiral that awaited a poor single mother before the days of government assistance.

Later, Valjean and Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, create a precious version of family. When they meet, Cosette has spent five years in the Thenardier’s tavern, starved, beaten, and worked like a slave. As Valjean and Cosette walk away together, Hugo writes, “She felt almost as though she were near God” (page 421). Her unwavering ability to trust this kind man who rescued her, never questioning why they are always on the run, reflects not only the perfect parent/child bond but also the perfect relationship that we can have with God. Valjean lives to protect her but recognizes when it’s time to move from the safety of a convent and allow Cosette to make her faith her own. Their devotion makes it that much more bittersweet when Cosette discoveres Marius and Valjean feels her slipping away.

Teens might find it interesting how Cosette manages the household like a grown woman, but will also relate to her typical-teen emotions as she matures, “discovers boys,” and feels the tug-of-war between the man she calls Father and the man she loves.

Cosette and Marius model romance as God intended it, so innocent that teens would benefit just from reading their love story. Yes, they meet secretly but they are satisfied with sitting together, talking, walking, and getting shivers when one brushes the other’s hand. Young men could learn something from the way Marius guards his mind against lust and treasures Cosette’s purity. For example, he looks away when Cosette leans down to pick something up and her bodice loosens a tiny bit. Hugo seizes opportunities throughout their courtship and marriage to discuss why places like a young girl’s bedroom or the honeymoon chamber should be considered too sacred to enter even as a storyteller. The immoral culture around them adds to the beauty of their pure relationship.

Marius also comes from an untraditional family, having been raised by his grandfather, who loves him but doesn’t know how to show it. Marius spends much of the story estranged from his grandfather and angry over lies he was told about his father. When the two families come together through Cosette and Marius’ relationship, the conflict and tests of loyalty that follow feel more intense than the battle at the barricade. At the same time we see the depth of Valjean’s integrity and love for Cosette as his criminal past comes back to haunt him.

Contrast all of this with the Thenardiers, who live in filth, spoil their daughters, abandon their sons, and later use the girls to commit crimes. Their daughter Eponine obviously loves Marius but comes across as that annoying neighbor girl who always shows up at the wrong time and has no social skills, manners, or sense of modesty. Only at the barricade do we see how deeply she cares for him and how different she is from her parents.

The unconventional families in Les Miserables reflect the time period when people were desperate, women had few options, and abandoned children were a normal part of the Paris landscape. A discussion about family life, true love, and teen life in 19th-century France compared to today would be a great compliment to this book.

To be continued.