I decided to be a bit seasonal this month and choose a book that fits well with October festivities. It also happens to be one of my favorite novels, and it is sorely underrated. So, without further ado, allow me to announce That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for October 2009 (drumroll, please): The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.
I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the Phantom musical, musical motion picture, or a handful of other movies with the same title. But, what many people don’t know is, they are all based off of the gothic novel of the same title by Leroux.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I saw the musical motion picture with Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Emmy Rossum as Christine. (I don’t care what anyone says, it is a beautiful adaptation of the Broadway show.) I fell in love with the story and the characters more than I had previously with any other musical, so I decided to do a bit of research on it. And that’s when I found out that the musical, and all the movie versions of the same name, were based off of a novel. Of course, my first instinct was to track down the book and read it.
As much as I enjoy reading, I can be a slow reader. I tend to read for content more so than for entertainment (I blame it on critical reading classes), which often requires me to flip backward in the book to look for something, go online and do some research, or thumb through a dictionary. As a result, I can sometimes (if I don’t like the book very much) find reading to be a chore, especially if the book has long chapters. (It takes longer for me to feel any sense of completion with them.) But when I picked up Phantom, I flew through it. To use a cliché, I ate it up like candy. It read like butter.
Phantom tells the story of a Christine Daaé, a young girl who, after she is orphaned, moves to the Paris Opera House. She gets a job there in the chorus. Erik, (aka the Phantom of the Opera, the Opera Ghost, or the Angel of Music), has loved her ever since she came to work and live at the Opera, but his is a more obsessive love, and is significantly less explored than it is in the musical. In the book, it comes off as a sort of violent, crazed obsession (not lust). Without ever showing himself to her (because he is deformed: no nose, sunken eyes, and yellow parchment skin), Erik trains Christine and helps her reach her full potential as a vocalist. Christine, mistaking his “phantom” voice as the voice of the “Angel of Music,” to which her dead father always referred to, trusts him fully.
But Erik has ulterior motives. In exchange for the vocal lessons, he expects Christine to be loyal and faithful to him, though they never enter into a real relationship. For many years there is no trouble with the arrangement, until Christine’s childhood sweetheart, Raoul, the Viscount de Chagny, comes onto the scene. As Raoul and Christine’s love is rekindled, the Phantom grows more violent in his anger. The last few chapters are real nail-biters, charging forward to, as we know through pop culture, a fatefully tragic ending. Just because you’ve seen an adaptation of Phantom before does not mean that the ending is predictable. By all means, it shocked me.
The characters are also vastly different than the ones in any adaptation I’ve seen. And their relationships are distinctly different, as well. I remember, stronger than anything else, that book-Christine was a lot less playful than in the musical or any movie. She’s cold, removed, and often times snotty to Raoul. Not like her character ever undergoes much of a dynamic change in Hollywood, but she certainly doesn’t in the book either.
It’s Erik, the Phantom, who is truly the fascinating one. We get much more of a peek into his past than adaptations usually share with us, and we see him excel in music, architecture, and the use of illusions (think magician here). We see him as more than just the creepy man who lurks around the Opera House, preying on Christine’s naïveté. And, more than anything, he has a name: Erik. He isn’t just “the Phantom” or “the Opera Ghost.” He has a name, which makes him more human-like than I assumed he could be. With that comes a certain amount of sympathy for him from the reader. He’s a tragically beautiful character.
Leroux certainly knew how to write a page turner! There’s an ideal balance between plot and characters, narration and dialogue. And there’s an urgency in his writing, at the end of the novel, that is contagious. There’s an important part of the book, toward the end, where Raoul’s caught in a scorching hot inescapable prison. Leroux makes you feel Raoul’s discomfort and growing insanity. It’s like you’re there, with Raoul, inside the “puzzle” of a room, trying to help him figure out a way to escape. There’s such an overwhelming sense of immediacy throughout the whole novel. I can describe it as nothing better than contagious and addictive.
So give this early 20th Century French novel a try. I promise, it’s sure not to disappoint. (Plus, what’s a better month than October to read a book about an opera house haunted by the ghoulish, bodiless voice of the “Angel of Music”?)