Last week I finished the book. Objectively it didn't take me so very long; in fact, I read it faster than I did The Count of Monte Cristo last year. But I confess, it felt at times as though the end would never come. The sheer amount of wordage Hugo uses in detailing things that have almost no impact on the plot is by no means exaggerated. He starts out the book by introducing the bishop who sets Jean Valjean on the path of morality, admits on the very first page that the following accounts have no immediate importance, and then launches into a 50+ page novella of the bishop's life. "M'gawk!" I say, profoundly. Such passages crop up frequently and on a variety of subjects: the battle of Waterloo and the history and purpose of convents are just two subjects that get significant page-time. And Rachel Heffington, the Ink Pen Authoress, remarked that only Hugo could leave the reader wondering whether Marius dies in order to detail the entire history of Parisian sewers.
"Lean" is by no means the adjective to describe Hugo's style.
In reading the classics, I've learned that getting used to large chunks of dialogue-less narrative is simply a matter of survival. What bothered me far more than Hugo's verbosity was his sad ignorance in regard to spiritual matters. Not that this was unexpected: without making him any less culpable, it is accurate to say that he was a product of his environment. Deism rather than Christianity was the rule of the day, as even a glance over the pages of Les Miserables will show. Thus, while he speaks of God and even, at times, Jesus Christ, everything is flavored by his philosophy: God appears as an unknowable cosmic Power, existing in every emotion or object that is "good"; Jesus Christ is afforded no higher place than that of a "good" man. Morality, not redemption, is to be found in the characters of the bishop and of Jean Valjean; good works and not God lead to heaven. Again, this is present in many if not most of the classics, although I found it particularly prevalent in Hugo and his contemporary Dumas.
At this point, you're probably thinking that I must not have liked the story. In fact, this wasn't the case at all; I have a strange ability to pick things apart and criticize, and still end by enjoying the whole. Such was the result with Les Miserables, for despite my irritation with the two matters mentioned above, there were other things that thoroughly caught my interest and won my appreciation. Being a character-driven writer myself, I was naturally delighted by Hugo's rich cast: in his tying together of the threads of many different lives, he's like a French Charles Dickens. (Except that it would be Dickens who was an English Victor Hugo.) Characters come from all over France and from all walks of life: Jean Valjean, the convict-turned-"saint"; Fantine, the miserable prostitute, and her daughter Cosette; Javert, the relentless hound of a police inspector; Marius Pontmercy, a dreamer; Enjolras, the visionary leader of a band of republicans; Thernardier, a certifiable creep; Eponine and Gavroche, Thernardier's children. These are the main players, who emerge complete from the pages.
In fact, although Jean Valjean is a nuanced character, he is hardly even the main character for the majority of the novel. After the infamous "hump" in the story, in which Hugo tells in painful detail all about him, Marius is the primary narrator; Gavroche, a young boy living on the streets of Paris, also gets a fair share of this page-time. In this section Jean Valjean moves to the background, seen through other characters' eyes, until Hugo returns to him after the fall of the barricades.
Of the good characters, I think I would class Enjolras as my favorite. He is something of an odd choice, as he doesn't play as major a role as Marius or Cosette or Gavroche; but I still liked him and found him an intriguing character, because he is so very cold and unapproachable. (I seem to like unapproachable, as evidenced by my liking for Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans.) As for Jean Valjean, while I sympathized with him in a detached way, his character never fully grabbed me. Perhaps because he had a tendency to lie down and be a doormat, and I always want to grab character-doormats and shake them. Marius and Cosette - well, I like a good romance as much as the next gal, but I confess I had a strong to desire to knock their heads together and tell them to wake up and smell the gunpowder.
Among the villains, there were really only two of any importance: Thernardier and Javert. The former was an excellent sneak, I must say, but it was Javert who caught my interest. He was the perfect villain for a hero like Jean Valjean, a phenomenal villain on any level. For he was the sort of character who seems at first like a hero: dedicated, scrupulous, upright, just, even humble. Oddly enough, as I read, Micah 6:8 often sprang to mind; Javert did justice and walked humbly (although not with His God - it would going much, much too far to say that). But in all that, he wasn't a hero, because he never learned mercy. This vein through his character made his struggle with Jean Valjean all the more fascinating, and his ending the more apt.
In the end, taking the book as a whole, I did enjoy Les Miserables. The characters and the plot, woven together until they really can't be looked at separately, were enough to hold me to the pages from laborious start to depressed-but-exultant finish. But if you read it for yourself, don't anticipate a happy ending.