Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

These are my reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. I crossed one off my bucket list yesterday when I finally finished Alexandre Dumas’ massive 1844 classic ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. I’ve heard translations of this book vary widely; the version I read was the unabridged Penguin Classics with translation by Robin Buss. I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible but it was tough to do so for this book; regardless, it’s been out for over 150 years, guys. Some spoilers will follow. 

For years, Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo has been sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to sack up and devote time to it. About a month ago, I finally decided to dive in, and I’ll just say this upfront: the book is well worth the 1200+ page journey.

The story is complex, deep and incredible, with characters that grow as you turn the page. Most will be familiar with the gist of it: Edmond Dantés, a simple sailor with a bright future and beautiful fiance, gets framed by a group of acquaintances for a political crime he did not commit, and gets thrown in jail with no trial or hope of release. Seventeen years pass, over the course of which Dantés meets a fellow prisoner who claims to know the location of a buried fortune on a small uninhabited island called Monte Cristo. After a daring escape from prison, Dantés acquires immense wealth and learns that his dear father has died of starvation, his fiance has married his rival, and all three men primarily responsible for his imprisonment have prospered and grown rich and successful.  Meanwhile, the world has forgotten about him, a mere pawn in a long con that has long been presumed dead.

Dantés is not about to take that shit lying down, so he uses his immense wealth to turn himself into a man of many faces. He is Sinbad the Sailor, a colorful bandit with a cave straight out of Arabian Nights, who smokes hashish and hangs out with smugglers. He is Abbé Busoni, a regal Italian priest and man of God. And he is the Count of Monte Cristo, a mysterious, rich and well-traveled man who never fails to impress anybody he meets and becomes the talk of the town wherever he goes.

The Count fancies himself a tool of God, a way to punish these successful people for their heinous crimes and the suffering they have caused him. He doesn’t want to merely kill them–to the Count, a quick death is not a fair trade for 17 years of hopeless, pointless suffering. He wants to reciprocate their pain, so he takes his time with his revenge, getting to know them, finding the things they love the most and systematically finding a way to ruin each man in the most horrific ways possible.

It’s interesting that this is considered by some a children’s book. In addition to being 1200 pages long, as Buss mentions in his introduction, the book features multiple bloody murders, two counts of infanticide, a lesbian, and a vivid description of a sexual drug hallucination. In a previous review of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we mention that Gaiman wonders in that book why adults don’t read books about bandits and treasure and adventure–The Count of Monte Cristo has all of those things and more. Maybe that’s why we view it as being for a younger generation, but trust me: a children’s story this is not.

Dantés’ vengeance is a dark one. The complex ways in which he destroys these men who have done him harm cause multiple deaths, a suicide and a man to go insane with grief, to the point where Dantés himself questions whether he took it too far. This is no G-rated revenge story, and the way the Count plays chess with people by using their own faults against them is a fascinating read.

This is not a perfect book by any means, and I did have some issues with it. There were some tropes and cheesy passages where the book shows its age–for example, characters in the story have a tendency to be hiding in shadows unseen while other characters are talking about Very Important Plot Details, and others seem to have incredible memories as they recollect scenes from years ago word-for-word in flashback stories.

There are many characters in this book, many of them compelling, but not all of them are interesting. Dumas’ strength does not lie in his women characters, as they are mostly cardboard cutouts there to serve the plot and without much other substance to them. There is one plotline in particular that stands out, featuring Valentine de Villefort, the daughter of one of the Count’s enemies, and her lover Maximilian Morrel, a friend of the Count.

This plotline was so excruciatingly boring, and the characters written so stilted and cliched, that I found myself fighting the desire to skip the page every time the name ‘Valentine’ appeared on the page. It was disappointing that this relationship plays so heavily into the ending of the book. As mentioned earlier–it serves a purpose to the plot–their only reason their story is there to give the Count something good to do to counteract the misery he’s caused and end the book with something other than the Count standing there dripping with blood.

That said, the good heavily outweighs the bad. The book was originally published as a serial; and you can tell: it’s a winding story full of digressions and shorter vignettes, taking its time plodding around through the main plot as it moves along at a leisurely pace. While it feels like some could maybe be cut out, the book earns its length, and it’s hard to find many scenes that could be described as ‘boring’.

The book’s length almost works against it in the sense that less people will read it due to the intimidation factor. I also think the story is too complex to be properly adapted as a movie, but perhaps a Game of Thrones style show or miniseries could give it some new life with American audiences.

This is a great addition to your library, and a worthwhile investment of your time. If you’ve been waiting to read this one–make the jump. You’ll enjoy getting to know Edmond Dantés, and you may never see anything quite like him again.

Rating: ****


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