Like millions of fellow fans, I recently saw Les Miserables in the theatre. Despite a few flaws, I loved the film – I teared up half a dozen times, and both my husband and I wept at the end. (I fully expected to do so, but he never cries at movies.) But as I stood in the darkened theatre afterward watching the credits, I was thinking about Kate.
(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Kate lived down the street from me when we were growing up, and she and her big sister, Brooke, introduced me to (among other things) Ace of Base, Rent, Chinese food, and Les Mis. When Kate played Brooke’s copy of the soundtrack for me one day, I was enthralled by the story of Valjean and Fantine and Javert. I begged to borrow the double CD, and kept it for weeks, even taking it on the youth group ski trip over Christmas break. I spent hours on the bus with my Discman in my lap, staring out the window, absorbed in the music, swept up in its power.
Later, I bought my own copy of the soundtrack: the same version Brooke owned, the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (This means I was thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson, who plays Jean Valjean in that performance, reappear as the Bishop in the film.) During my first semester in Oxford, two girlfriends and I squeezed into a box in a London theatre and watched the stage musical, leaning over the edge to catch every word.
The story of Les Mis is powerful in its own right. But it takes on additional significance when I remember how I came to it in the first place, who introduced it to me, the memories associated with hearing and seeing it for the first time. It’s inextricably tied up with dear friends, a city I love, and that delicious sense of discovering a story you can live in.
Not all my favorite stories have such specific memories attached to them: many of them simply came to me from my parents or were discovered at school or in a bookstore. But I’ve talked at length about how Valerie was responsible for my introduction to Harry Potter. My dad, and the first brilliant film, catapulted me into a deep love of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I found an advance copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an Oxford bookshop, before I really knew what advance copies were and before the book became a fan favorite. And a dear friend handed me Winter Solstice at just the right time, six Christmases ago.
When I write my frequent book roundups, I find myself noting where I discovered a book, or who told me about it, or whose review convinced me to pick it up. I believe those “origin stories” can deepen our enjoyment of books and films and music, while we still appreciate the things for themselves. My attachment to Les Mis began, and has certainly been enriched, because of Kate and Brooke, and that long-ago afternoon lounging in Kate’s room, listening to the people sing.