Les Miz and Me: A Personal History

I.

SB and I are supposed to be seeing Django Unchained with his brother and sister in law.  As a general rule I don’t watch horror or gory/ super violent movies, which pretty much rules out the Tarantino ovuere, but I’m willing to suck it up because it’s the holidays and it’s his family.  But the four person outing expands to include several of the brother’s friends and I have always had a lousy poker face, so SB declares we are going to see Les Miserables instead.

After we are seated in the theater, SB looks around at the largely high school/college aged moviegoers around us and muses “it’s a younger crowd than I would have expected.”

“That’s because,” I said, “every teenage girl at some point believes she’s Eponine, whether it’s remotely applicable or not.”

II.

I am in eighth grade. Our English textbook contains a bastardized excerpt of the Bishop’s Candlesticks story, styled as a play (though, to my knowledge, it does not match any stage production of Les Miz ever done). This class is what is often considered “Gifted and Talented” —  our teacher senses we are interested in the source material far more than this bizarre excerpt and begins reading to us from the abridged version for ten minutes each day.  We make it to the point where Valjean collects Cosette and escapes into the convent in Paris, during which time we also watch a TV movie version of the story and our teacher plays for us several selections from the original Broadway soundtrack.  I immediately ask for, and receive, the soundtrack on cassette tape for my birthday.

Towards the end of the school year I overhear several members of the drill team singing “On My Own” at the top of their lungs and feel jealous, as if only I have the right to the material.

III.

In high school, I make the first of three attempts at reading the unabridged novel, getting bogged down in the interminable Waterloo section.  The irony of this does not fully strike me at the time. I also obtain a full double CD version of the Broadway recording and a piano book of selected songs, which go into heavy rotation for a good six months. I develop the ability to do a pitch perfect imitation of the young actors singing “Castle on a Cloud” and all of Gavroche’s parts, faux-Cockney accent and all, but I of course devote the bulk of my practice to nailing Eponine’s parts, even those she sings in the background.

IV.

In college, on my very first trip abroad, my traveling companion and I happen to stumble onto the London theater where Les Miserables is playing and, having a free afternoon the following day, purchase tickets to a matinee performance.  We are abroad as part of a literature course, but my companion is not particularly familiar with the story.  At the conclusion of “A Little Fall of Rain,” she sighs “Poor Eponine!”  I feel smug, and also strangely proud, of the emotional effect.

V.

Stranded at home post-bachelor’s degree, in a placeholder job until I can get through a second try at grad school applications, I find a paperback unabridged copy of the novel (with the musical’s logo on the cover, just to make sure everyone knows it’s THAT Les Miserables) for less than $10 at a bookstore and decide to make a third try at reading it.  This time, I restrict myself to reading only one or two of the incredibly short chapters a night, while reading other books concurrently at my normal pace.  The strategy works.  It takes six months, but, once past the detested Waterloo section, I find myself astounded at how much more there is to the story — particularly the entire Thenardier family, larger (Gavroche’s parentage is a revelation, as is the mere existence of second daughter Azemla), far nastier and further to the margins, yet somehow the linchpin of the entire nine hundred pages.. When I finally turn the last page, I can’t help shedding a few tears, for Valjean, for the 19th century French, for myself facing more endless nights in need of a distraction.

I never feel any compulsion to reread the book and, with it finished, find that my obsession with the story in all its forms fades.  Ten years later, though I generally enjoy the movie version of the musical, it is like looking at a beloved picture book; I can remember loving it dearly, and linger over every familiar phrase, but it has lost some of its power over my heart. In fact, my biggest surprise is how much the book has staked its claim to me, even after having not seen a word of the text in a decade. I recall the story with astonishing clarity, whether it’s identifying details from the book that were absent from the original stage production or even pulling out whole sections which are still elided or excluded entirely from the movie.  My biggest gasp of delight comes at the appearance of Gavroche’s elephant. Victor Hugo, after losing so many earlier battles, has won this particular war.

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