This is a literary analysis blog, which isn’t quite the same as a book review blog. And yet, I was about to write a book review, because I needed to have my say. And it still wound up being kind of an analysis, because that’s just what I do.
Disclaimer: Obviously, this will contain some spoilers. (But not really, if you’re familiar with Les Miserables). If you’re worried, skip down to the last heading.
I hate to be a book snob, but in many ways, I am a book snob. When I heard that there was a YA novel written from the perspective of Eponine, I had my doubts. Yet when I read some reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it seemed that everyone loved this book, even ardent brick-fans like me. So I reserved a copy at my local library, and it was ready to pick up a day later.
It only took a couple of hours to read. It started out really, really good. I like that Fletcher chose to begin with Eponine’s death, most likely recognising that most of her readers know how it ends up anyway. It’s a good decision.
The scenes of Eponine’s childhood in Montfermeil were enjoyable. There were a lot of details from the brick, and I could see why brick-lovers liked it so much. I thought child Eponine’s struggle was really poignant: when she did bad things like stealing, she got praise and affection from her parents, but when she did good things, she felt good about herself and made others happy. That’s a tough thing for a child still forming their personal moral code to grapple with.
But here’s the thing:
Once Eponine got older, her story really didn’t do it for me anymore. Which is ridiculous, since in the brick, that’s the part of her story that’s interesting! It seemed to me that it would have been more realistic for Eponine to have hardened at least a little. Even after years on the streets of Paris, she seemed rather naive and innocent; she was not the tough, street-smart Eponine we know in the brick. I thought we were going to see this “creature born to be a dove change into an osprey,” but Eponine remained puzzlingly dove-like throughout.
I felt like I was reading about Eponine’s life as imagined by Cosette, and it was weird.
Eponine who hardly steals? Eponine who tells Marius the begging letter is a trick and not to believe it? Eponine who doesn’t arrange for Marius to be at the barricade, but instead simply goes there looking for him so she can give him Cosette’s letter, which she had never even considered withholding? I was just having a really hard time stomaching all of this. I kept waiting for her to toughen up, but she never did. Even in her toughest and most awesome scene, where she frightens off the Patron-Minette, she just didn’t seem all that tough or awesome.
Where did all of Eponine’s flaws go? At first, I thought they were gone, but then I noticed something interesting: Fletcher had transplanted them into Azelma. In the brick, it’s Azelma who seems rather useless to the Thenardiers, dropping letters and sitting lifelessly on a pallet. But in A Little In Love, Azelma has been given Eponine’s more troubling behaviours like drinking and stealing, as well as all her nastier traits. This leaves Eponine nearly perfect. The few times she does make a mistake, she spends paragraphs regretting it.
You don’t pay any attention to me…except when we go on long walks through Paris.
Eponine’s relationship with Marius was just as you would imagine a YA version of it to be. When I read the brick, I am always struck by how little Marius actually says to Eponine. Most of their conversations are painfully one-sided, with her prattling away and him answering only when it is absolutely necessary. In fact, Marius actually isn’t all that kind to Eponine; it’s simply that her starved little heart latches onto him as the one person who hasn’t treated her like absolute rubbish. I’ve also a thought that perhaps it’s not so much the man she is in love with, it is the glimpse he provides into a different kind of poverty. He is poor too, yet he owns books, he has a tidy room, he is generous, and he is honest. In any case, the relationship is almost entirely within her head.
But, this is YA, and so in A Little In Love, there is more to it than a tragic girl’s cherished delusion. Marius snaps out of his dreamy state before they’ve even properly met and notices she’s been crying. When she comes to his room, he explains politics to her. One evening, they walk through the streets of Paris and talk of dreams. Stuff like that.
And Another Note:
One reason I’ve always had a lot of empathy for Eponine is her little speech about how she considered drowning herself but it was too cold. Fletcher simplified Eponine’s character so much, but she should have left this one thing. Exploring, just a little, what struggles Eponine had with depression and suicidal thoughts would have helped to make the character sympathetic. Of course, that would have been a lot more complicated, but this is a complex character we’re dealing with, and complexity is what this book cried out for. And while we’re here, a major problem I have with the YA genre in general is the overwhelming focus on romantic relationships, as if that is the only thing that teens are capable of relating to. There are a lot of young people struggling with mental illness, and I think the more it’s talked about, the better. An opportunity was missed here.
There is probably a lot more that I could complain about (like the barricade, what was that?!) but I don’t want to tear this book apart, especially since all the other reviewers liked it. Maybe my standards are too high. Besides, in terms of writing, it was absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never read Susan Fletcher’s work before, but she really has a talent for prose poetically written. Like this gem of a line:
Love. It’s almost the smallest word I know. If it were an object, I might drop it or forget it because it’s so tiny. But it’s not a small feeling, even though it grows from a moment as small as an apple seed.
So I did really enjoy a lot of things about this book. (Another thing: Both Cosette and Gavroche were excellently written). But something never quite felt right about it.And maybe there’s a reason for that.
In the brick, we get to see in detail the thought process of many of the characters. When we don’t, we often get a quick peek, at least. Not so with Eponine. We never get even the tiniest glimpse into her thoughts. The result is that her motives are ambiguous and open to interpretation. Clearly, she is meant to be a tragic character who earns our sympathy, while being neither innocent nor a victim. But that’s about all that is clear about Eponine Thenardier.
Perhaps it would have been impossible to pull off a book from Eponine’s point of view simply because one of the things that makes Eponine interesting is the fact that we never get to see that point of view. In which case, Fletcher can hardly be blamed.
Quick, Spoiler-Free, Over-All Opinion?
It was a quick, entertaining read. I didn’t cry at the end, but I did feel like I’d been punched in the stomach, which is almost worse. While most of the characters, relationships, and issues are very simplified, it’s a good read for teens interested in classic literature, and Les Miserables fans who are bored and in need of a quick fix for their obsession.
It will only take a day out of your life at the absolute maximum, so why not give it a try?