Once a great novel is published, it’s invulnerable: Whether banned or bowdlerized, condensed for an easy-reading book club or adapted into a lousy motion picture, the book stays fixed, uncompromised. Even a weak sequel can’t do its reputation any damage. So what if Joseph Heller’s Closing Time was tedious and curmudgeonly; Catch-22 still soars. By the same token, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is no less bracing an American epic because Streets of Laredo was dead on arrival. And it’s a safe bet that Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables isn’t about to suffer any critical injury now that Laura Kalpakian, an American writer living in Washington State, has written a follow-up. Appearing just a mere 133 years after the original, Cosette comes close to equaling Les Miz in bulk only.
But let’s get real. Like the recent, hired-writer sequels to Gone With the Wind and Rebecca — and the ”completions” of novels left unfinished by Raymond Chandler, Edith Wharton, even Charles Dickens — Kalpakian’s long, sprawling, often crawling, romance has got nothing to do with literature. So that capital may flow freely, famous fictional characters get to live again. Call it resurrection by cash register, and if it all seems a little pointless and unethical, well, no real harm is done.
As everyone who saw the long-running hit Broadway musical or one of the more than half-dozen film versions (or actually read Hugo’s novel) will recall, Les Misérables is about the travails of Jean Valjean, a 19th-century Parisian who spends nearly two decades in penal servitude for stealing a loaf of bread. Following his release, he commits another crime and is then pursued and hounded for years by a monomaniacal policeman named Javert (prototype for The Fugitive’s Lieutenant Gerard). Valjean evolves into a saint, and along the way adopts the little daughter of a tragic prostitute — that’s right, the same scruffy girl on the musical’s poster. An abused waif named Cosette.
Kalpakian’s narrative kicks in with a retelling of the last sections of Hugo’s original novel: It’s 1832, and Cosette, now 17 years old, has fallen in love with a radical firebrand named Marius Pontmercy. Valjean disapproves, and to thwart her marriage as well as escape the political unrest in Paris, he plans to take Cosette with him to England. But at the last minute, Valjean has a change of heart and decides to rescue Marius from the barricades during an abortive rebellion against the king. It takes Kalpakian close to 100 pages to segue into her own material and story line, which turn out to be (go figure) a refiguring of Les Misérables, with Marius finding his own nemesis in Achille Clerons (a malignant version of the morally rigid Javert), and Cosette adopting a street urchin herself, a boy nicknamed the Starling.
For all the book’s fairly rousing dramatizations of several uprisings, a revolution, and an imperial coup d’état, Cosette is primarily an old-fashioned love story: The hero is a reckless hunk with a rakish facial scar; the heroine is a feisty babe-wife who vows to ”move heaven and earth” to protect her guy from his enemies. (And as publisher of an antigovernment newspaper, he’s got plenty of those.) Again and again the reader is told how neither Cosette nor Marius is ever unfaithful to the other — clearly, we’re expected to find that amazing. They get rich, they get poor, they’re separated, and they’re persecuted, but nothing can break their bond. That’s amour! Even if their characters are just a little…how do you say, mechanical, in French?
All right, yes, Cosette is dull and overwrought and corny (somebody actually calls someone else ”my little peach pit”), but at least you can say this about it: It leaves the door open for a sequel. C-