Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Little In Love by Susan Fletcher

"We all leave something behind us. A bird in flight will lose a snow-white feather, and flowers in the hedgerows will drop their petals. And people? We leave memories. Footprints in the dust and fingerprints on everything we've touched, warmth in every hand we've held. We become stories that are spoken of, for always. And in this way, we carry on."

A Little In Love tells the story of Eponine Thenardier from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Fletcher's story is loosely based on the events in the novel, although they occur in a somewhat different manner. The character of Eponine is one of the more popular in both the novel and the various musicals performed in recent years. She is often considered Hugo's most interesting.

The novel opens on the Rue de la Chanvrerie. It is June 5, 1832. Eponine lies in front of the barricades, having been shot in an attempt to save Marius from being shot.  With blood everywhere, she knows she is dying. She's remembering Marius and the first time she saw him. She's also remembering her childhood in Montfermeil, a small village outside of Paris.

Eponine was born in 1815 in a hayfield to Madame Thenardier while her father Luc fought in the Battle of Waterloo. Because Eponine's mother likes girls she decides to keep the baby.  When her father returned home from war he was rich off the money and items he plundered from the dead. With that money her parents bought the damp inn on the ruelle du Boulanger in Montfermeil, naming it the Sergeant of Waterloo.

A sister Azelma was soon born. Eponine was protective of her younger sister.  She loved to watch the rain from her bedroom window. Lots of rain meant their inn was full of customers and a chance for her parents to get rich. Eponine's mother sends her to the main room to rob their patrons who won't suspect a small child of picking pockets.  When Eponine returns with jewelry, coins and a ruby ring her mother is pleased and tells her she loves her.

A day later the Thenardier's take in a young girl named Cosette whose mother pays for them to care for her daughter. Cosette is a beautiful little girl with blonde hair who believes that her mother will one day return for her when she has enough money. Feeling sorry for Cosette, Eponine places her in her and Azelma's bed. However her mother is furious at her for doing this and orders Cosette to sleep under the stairs. Madame Thenardier tells Eponine that they will use the money from Cosette's mother to pay for nice dresses and meat while Cosette will wear rags and eat crusts.

Cosette's life is very hard as she does all the dirty, hard jobs: plucking chickens, scrubbing vegetables, cleaning windows and washing the floors. Eponine tries to be kind to Cosette but her mother tells her kindness will not help her in life. Because of this Eponine decides to be cruel to Cosette. After a trip to Paris by her mother, Eponine is given a new petticoat and a white fur muff, while Azelma receives a cape with green velvet trim. Eventually their money runs out, Cosette's mother stops sending the Thenardiers money and they must return to thieving as a means of living. Eponine steals too, because she wants to make her mother happy. However, Cosette makes Eponine feel guilty for stealing from a blind man.

When Eponine is eight years old, Madame Thenardier gives birth to a boy whom she immediately abandons. Eponine with the help of Cosette care for him and he is eventually named Gavroche. At Christmas 1823 a strange man wearing a yellow jacket comes to the inn. When Madame Thenardier is cruel to Cosette, this man whose name is Jean Valjean, intercedes for her and buys her the expensive doll Azelma desperately wanted from the stall in town. He stays at the inn and buys Cosette from the Thenardiers on Christmas Day, taking her away. Eponine is jealous and sad because she knows Cosette has been saved and will lead a comfortable life with someone who loves her.

By spring the Thenardiers are destitute once again and Eponine and Azelma are forced to steal. Everytime she steals, Eponine tries to do something good to appease her conscience. However life for Eponine only gets harder when her father murders a man and the Thenardiers are forced to flee Montfermeil and head to Paris. The journey is exhausting and cold, with the family hiding in ditches along the way. They eventually find a boat, repair it and drift downriver towards Paris. However, Gavroche is left behind, much to the horror of Eponine.

In Paris the Thenardiers stay with Monsieur Thenardier's friend, Babet on the rue de la Charcuterie. Eponine is now fifteen years old. Although the area where she lives is poor, she soon discovers the Paris of her dreams. "The houses were grander than any I'd ever seen and the shops sold wonderful things -- soap, flowers, china, sugared confectionary laid out like stars. As for the men, they wore top hats and had neat mustaches, and the ladies wore white curled wigs with their skirts rustling behind them..." Fourteen year old Azelma however likes the dark side of Paris, the alleyways and the stealing. Madame Thenardier loves the gang of clever thieves,Patron Minette consisting of Babet, the enormous Gueulemer, the mute Claquesous, and Montparness who is young and well dressed. The Patron Minette ruled the Paris underworld. In order to escape the terrible house on rue de la Charcuterie, Eponine steals continuously. A key Eponine finds leads her father to rob a wealthy home allowing the Thenardiers to move to the Gorbeau tenement.

However, they continue to live in dire poverty. This leads Monsieur Thenardier to decide to write letters to wealthy Parisians begging for money. Eponine and Azelma go to the rue de Rivoli where they use the letters to solicit money. There Eponine meets Montparnasse whom she dislikes intensely. Fleeing from the troubling encounter with Montparnasse, Eponine runs into a handsome young man back at the Gorbeau. She learns from Madame Bourgon, who runs the tenement, that the man's name is Marius Pontmercy who rents Room four. It is this encounter that changes Eponine's destiny forever.

Discussion

In A Little In Love, Fletcher portrays Eponine as a girl whose basic character is good but because of her circumstances, often finds herself drawn into a life of thieving. This sets up an enormous source of conflict in Eponine's life which she must resolve. At first Eponine steals because it is what she's been taught from birth. "Before I could even talk, my mother taught me. When I was still a baby she showed me how to grasp a lady's collar and, like this, steal her diamond brooch. She told me to smile so that passersby paused to say, 'What a pretty baby!' "

Eponine soon recognizes that she is only praised and loved by her mother when she steals. Her mother tells her "How I love you when you bring me such gifts! When you steal so well!" Eponine longs to simply be loved by her mother as her daughter. This becomes even more apparent to Eponine when she sees how Cosette's mother loves her. "My sadness sat in my heart like a pebble -- hard and sore...It was that long, tight hug that Cosette's mother had given her, the way she'd pressed her face into the place between Cosette's neck and shoulders..." Eponine knows she is only "called pretty when I'd stolen things."

When Eponine wants to be kind to Cosette her mother tells her, "Kindness is a useless thing. Useless! Do you think that kindness stops the guillotine's blade or the gnaw of hunger in a belly...It is the kind people who are tricked and fooled and stolen from! It's the kind ones who are murdered..." This results in Eponine acting cruelly towards Cosette in an attempt to win her mother's "love" and it also leads to Eponine to focus on stealing to win that approval from her mother. However, when she steals the blind man's wedding ring, Cosette's surprise at Eponine's cruelty only serves to prick her conscience and she feels shame over what she's done. So she promises herself that she will go one day to Paris to find love and to stop stealing.

Once in Paris things worsen because her family becomes involved with a gang of thieves. While the rest of her family admires the gang, Patron Minette, Eponine realizes that "I ached for something else. For something good." Eponine continues to struggle with her deep desire to live a good life in the face of extreme poverty and while living with a family made up of disreputable characters who place no value on honesty. This is particularly demonstrated when Eponine meets Montparnasse who is the youngest member of the Patron Minette. Eponine asks Montparnasse if he wishes for something better asking him, "Don't you ever want to live a kinder life?"

Eponine hopes to believe in something higher.
"All I wanted was to believe in better, just a bit. A little light and love and hope. I wanted to shake Montparnasse, to shout out that his heart might be missing but mine was still beating, and my conscience was beating too...How could he ever be happy, murdering?" But Montparnasse has been made hard by poverty and injustice. He tells her that kindness will only make her poorer. Just when she's lost hope in the ideals of love and beauty she meets Marius.

When Marius gives Eponine a five franc coin, Eponine's family can't comprehend his action. "He must be a proper fool, that boy," said Papa." But Eponine recognizes his action for what it is - an act of kindness. With the five franc coin, Eponine's family is able to eat well for weeks, proving to her that kindness does matter. It is her love for Marius and the death of her mother that motivates Eponine in the end to "...do all the good, kind acts I've ever wanted to. I won't steal. I won't lie. I 'll make people's lives better whenever I can manage it. And I'll never, ever do cruel things again." Eponine becomes determined to make amends for the harm she's done to Marius, Cosette and Jean Valjean even if it costs her everything she has. Her acts of kindness in locating Marius for Cosette and bringing the two of them together also serve to demonstrate that kindness matters.

The novel's themes of redemption and forgiveness play out in the final scenes of the story between Eponine and Cosette and between Eponine and Marius. In both cases Eponine asks the forgiveness of Cosette and Marius, bringing her peace and foreshadowing her death.

Fletcher does an admirable job of portraying life in France after the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution. After the Napoleonic Wars, France became a monarchy once again with the return of the brothers of King Louis XVI. This became known as the Bourbon Restoration and lasted until1830. While there were some positive changes out of the revolution, France continued to be plagued by widespread poverty, unrest and cholera outbreaks. The Thenardier family demonstrate the effect of poverty on families and on society in general. Poverty makes people vulnerable to disease and crime.

Fletcher's novel takes its title from a line in Les Miserables where Eponine mentions that she was "a little in love" with Marius. This novel has a wonderful cover, the title letters in the tricolours of the republic. A Little In Love is a dark novel whose themes of kindness, redemption and forgiveness balance out the dark characters who live for only themselves.
Fans of the musical, Les Miserables will enjoy this novel. Those who have never heard of Victor Hugo's story nor the musical which is based on the classic novel will enjoy this historical novel of unrequited love set in post revolutionary France.

Book Details:

A Little in Love by Susan E. Fletcher
New York: Chicken House 2015
227 pp.

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