Interestingly, I’d never actually read this book. I knew the story, of course. Everyone knows the story. The story is about Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and how Esmerelda, the young gypsy, is the only person who is nice to him and so he falls in love with her. And while that is what it’s about, it’s also about so much more… And so much less.
To begin with, of the several hundred pages of the book, maybe a 100, at the outside, are dedicated to this story (I listened to it so I’m not sure about page lengths). I do know there was about an hour or so of the 22:35 it took to listen to which was reserved for nothing but the history of Egyptian architecture and symbology. In fact, there was a lot about the history of architecture, fascinating in its own right, but far from relevant to the plot. And the plot was only peripherally about the hunchback at all. I really thought he’d play a much larger role than he did, but in fact, it was his adopted father, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, who is ostensibly the protagonist of the piece. And Esmerelda, the good and pure hearted gypsy? Not so much. She’s selfish and vain (but then, so are most of the characters) and her machinations cause the ruin for almost everyone else in the plot. Yes, she does do Quasimodo a favor, and yes, he falls inextricably in love with her to the point of allowing himself to perish.
Yes, I may have gotten the bigger plot points wrong (thanks Disney) but I did understand this was a Gothic work and a classic, one I should read. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was the humor. Having only read one Hugo book before, The Man Who Laughs, which is not a comedy, I was totally unprepared for the funnier side of this dark and tragic love story. The scene between the deaf Quasimodo and the deaf judge before whom he is brought is brilliant and worth the price of admission on its own. So while Hugo may have gone off on a few tangents, they are well worth the diversion and the book itself is well worthy of the title “classic.”
I can’t really review the book because I tend to read it several times a year and just spent some time helping out with a new edition, but with this particular iteration, we can certainly talk about the performance quality and that is superb. This is the second audio version I have of this (the other is both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking Glass and narrated by Christopher Plummer) and I gotta say, I prefer this one. The Plummer version is okay, some technical issues aside, but at the end of the day, it’s the story of a young girl and having it read solely by an older Englishman just doesn’t quite fit the bill. Johansson, on the other hand, does a wonderful job, not only with Alice but with all the ancillary characters.
To be fair, I read this in preparation for delivering a lecture on comic history as well as research for my dissertation. And to that end, it did exactly what it was supposed to do. It gives a very detailed account of the behind the scenes workings of one of the two biggest comic companies in the world and it does it in a general interesting way. If you’re a comic fan and geek out at the mention of comic creators and artists from the 60s and 70s. If that’s not you, though, Howe’s book may seem a bit trifling and rather boring.
Thing is, while there’s nothing particularly bad about this book – there’s nothing particularly great about it, either. It’s a straight forward company biography, with little detours to talk about some of the bigger names and specific issues and events, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing compelling enough to make the casual fan want to keep reading. The closest we get are some tidbits about the relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in relation to the controversy regarding their co-creator credits on some of the biggest names in comics history. But again, you really need to know the comics and characters themselves, beyond the recent block-buster films, to appreciate what Howe is telling us.
His approach is straight forward and linear, which, given his subject, may not be the most dynamic way to present the material. With all that, though, I enjoyed it and learned a few things. Been very interesting recently, going through some old issues and noting names and advertisements which held relationships I hadn’t previously known or understood.