Rare the classic novel that is as familiar in adaptation as Les Misérables; thanks to the recent film starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, and the internationally successful musical production, seen by some 60 million people over the past thirty years. One of its most moving aspects remains the unrequited love of Éponine for Marius, culminating in her death in his arms, having taken the bullet that was destined for him.
In A Little in Love, Susan Fletcher gives street girl Éponine – ‘the broken heart of Les Misérables’ – voice to tell her life story, from her birth in the year of the Battle of Waterloo to her death on the barricades of Paris during the anti-monarchist uprising of 1832. And rather beautifully she does it too.
Fletcher takes us back to Éponine’s early childhood in Montfermeil, at the inn run by her unscrupulous parents – the Thenardiers – who thieve from their customers and compel their daughters – Éponine, and her younger sister Azelma – to do the same. Éponine tries hard to be good, caring for her neglected baby brother Gavroche, and being kind to Cosette, the angelically pretty but wretched girl, abandoned by her mother to the mercy of the Thenardiers. But urged on by her mother (‘Then be cruel. Cruel! It’s what will save you!’) Éponine’s benevolence dissolves into hatred.
Eight years later, with Éponine now forced to fend for herself on the streets of Paris – a city of ‘danger and beauty and love’ – she and Cosette meet again. A reformed character, Éponine is desperate to make amends, but the price of Cosette’s forgiveness and friendship is Marius, with whom she is more than ‘a little in love’.
Susan Fletcher brings considerable credentials as an adult novelist to this, her first crossover title, having won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Betty Trask Prize for her debut, Eve Green. And the result is beguiling. Against all the drama, sound and fury of the epic novel which inspired it, A Little in Love sets quiet but captivating storytelling, driven by the supressed emotions of its downtrodden heroine, as she makes her turbulent journey towards redemption. Fletcher has a notable ability to capture character and atmosphere in a few short phrases, whether it be the stench of Paris (‘It was dung and bones and rotting meat and human muck’) or the virtues of Marius (‘He looks up at cathedrals as he walks past them…He’s kind to an old man in Austerlitz. When he passes a stray dog he always pats it… When he’s very tired, he rubs his knuckles into the corners of his eyes’).
Above all, we feel the ache in Éponine, whether she is wrestling with what use there might be in kindness; craving the love of her hard-as-nails mother (‘I drank up my mother’s kiss like it was water’) or a great romance: (‘To be loved would be better than a coin, or anything’). It is to Fletcher’s great credit that a novel that could feel bleeding heart sentimental – and even surplus to requirements – is both enhancing, and true to the great novel that inspired it.