I didn’t want to drop my habit of reading French, so I bumped this little gem about five years up my TBR, and it didn’t disappoint!
Confession: My knowledge of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is not as thorough as many people’s, so there won’t be much of that sweet, sweet comparison. Sorry!
There will be spoilers but honestly I don’t know how many people don’t know the broad details of this story, so you may not be that bothered. I’ll stick the rest under a cut for length anyway.
I was pleased to realise that reading Nana such a short time beforehand had given me some helpful scenery vocab with regards to fancy old French furniture and little pedestal tables and whatnot, and – even better – theatre vocab, which made the whole experience that bit smoother. Well done me for never reading modern French books.
Fantôme is set up like a mystery – you have the prologue, in which our erstwhile narrator lays out all of his research and thanks the people who graciously agreed to talk about him, and puts forth his academic conclusions that all of this really happened! etc, which for some reason is like catnip to me. It’s my favourite way to be fooled. I say this all the time. I don’t care. It’s still true.
Anyway, Fantôme may be set up like a mystery, but I have to say you don’t spend much time thinking that the phantom is anything other than a real person playing tricks. Which is kind of a shame! Everyone loves a good ghost story! But in the end that’s just not really what Fantôme is. It’s an incredibly gothic romance, complete with a sleeping-coffin and an unfinished opera that will never be performed, and an underground lake that really existed. Unfortunately it also comes complete with love interest Raoul de Chagny, who is one of those romantic heroes much like Marius Pontmercy, with whom I simply cannot. He spends most of his time doing the opposite to what Christine has asked him to do and causing trouble, and the rest of his time being led around by the Persian, who actually knows what he’s doing.
There’s so much more than this love story, though – in the first half particularly we have plenty of spooky backstage opera scenes, and get to watch the new management grapple with this ghostly legacy of blackmail and weird rituals they’ve inherited – and these were some of my favourite scenes. The new managers obviously don’t believe in ghosts, and watching them try to work out who’s playing the practical joke, and getting information out of the delightful Madame Giry, was wonderful.
The Persian is, of course, the unsung star of the show, cool-headed and clever, saving Raoul’s sorry behind over and over again as he leads him through the underground labyrinths and Erik’s deadly tricks.
And Christine herself is no wilting flower without agency. In the end, she alone is the one with the power to stop Erik, and though, yes, ultimately she kills him with a kiss and her pure soul and kindness are what convince him to let her go and be happy, even though he’s a heinous amoral murderer with no concept of boundaries. But there are worse ways to triumph than through kindness, aren’t there?
I keep coming back to it – would anyone blame Christine if she hadn’t been able to show that kindness? Does Erik deserve kindness? Does anyone owe kindness to people who behave so horrifically? Does anyone owe kindness to people who behave horrifically because they’ve never been shown kindness? Do they deserve kindness? If they deserved kindness during their formative, innocent years and didn’t receive it, do they then forfeit the right to it later on through their actions? What’s the balance between the earned consequences of those actions and the kindness that might prevent them in future or might have prevented them from the past?
I don’t know. I don’t think there are rules. But I think it’s worth thinking about.
I’m not sure it’s entirely the point of the book, but still, I think it’s worth thinking about.
I’m not sure I’ve said everything there is to be said about the book, but I’m very aware that there are greater Phantom scholars than me out there, so if you want something really in-depth about the book and all its adaptations, I recommend starting with this video!