Book Review – Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons was my first book choice for Riverside Readers. I saw it as if by serendipity in my local second-hand book shop a few days before my choice was to be made and the thing was decided! I haven’t (yet) seen the film version with John Malkovich and Glenn close so my only other frame of reference was Cruel Intentions! Here are my thoughts…

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is set in then parlours and private rooms of French aristocrats in the Eighteenth century. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscount de Valmont are rich and bored and basically enjoy manipulating the lives of others in a sort of sparring match of vicious minds. Valmont is bent upon seducing the virtuous Presidente de Tourvel while Merteuil is plotting to corrupt the young Cecile de Volanges who is on the brink of being married to a respectable and rich match. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce Cecile and ruin her honour, and at the same time she is already being distracted by her music tutor Chevalier Danceny! The drama unfolds in a flurry of letters between the protagonists. As the name of the book suggests the games are dangerous and such complicated drama combined with Machiavellian minds of the worst kind can only lead to destructive consequences.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis, I LOVED Les Liaisons Dangereuses. If you didn’t know any better from reading the synopsis you might assume that you were about to dip into the latest edition of HELLO! magazine. And in a way, it is the same in that you are reading about the crazy lives of the very wealthiest people who have nothing better to do than create mayhem and scandal. Here’s the thing though; the novel is so wonderfully written and the characters so well exposed through the letters that I came away from it feeling as if I’d read something of a bit of a work of art (probably Rococo!). I could almost hear the rustle of skirts disappearing through doorways and imagine the vain and cruel Marquise de Merteuil at her toilette or committing her vile words to paper in a beautiful French boudoir.

I have to admit that at the beginning of the book, the French titles and names were  a bit confusing for me (even gender was a bit ambiguous) but I soon got to grips with the characters because of their distinctive voices. The character of the Marquise de Merteuil was fantastically vivid, scheming and manipulative, but strangely forthright in some of her letters. Valmont was also brilliant as the corrupting influence, never ceasing to try  a new turn of phrase to convince the Presidente de Tourval to take to his bed.
I wanted to love them both for being so clever and calculating but I couldn’t help but hate them just as much because some of the things that they do are just so morally corrupt as to be quite horrifying.

The character of the 15 year old Cecile was also joy to read Naive but also desiring of male affection she was part free spirit as much as being a pawn in the games of the evil pair. The presidente de Tourval I wasn’t sure of at first, but was impressed by her strong character and reasoned arguments. Her character was genuinely intelligent – an interesting female model to have been created by a male writer of the time.

No one comes out unscathed in Liaisons and it is a very dark and shocking book even by today’s standards. The only bit that I felt I struggled with was the middle of the book where things seem to move more slowly but in hindsight it was important to build up the climax of the novel. I think all the book-groupers felt that the middle bit was somewhat long-winded but that things picked up again quickly towards the end. Mostly I think that the majority enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although it wasn’t quite Jackie‘s cup of tea or Kim’s. Simon (Savidge Reads) and Clare (Paperback Reader) have also posted their thoughts meaning you can read different perspectives.

I think that you will probably be able to tell if this is your kind of book or not from the thoughts above and as you can tell by now it’s one of my firm favourites. I really enjoyed this month’s Riverside Readers session, also – especially with all the impassioned discussion!

P.S. I picked up this bookmark while I was in Venice at the weekend and it just occurred to me that the picture is sort of how I imagine the Marquise de Merteuil to look, although obviously French and not Italian!

Have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses or seen the film Dangerous Liaisons? If not, is this the kind of story that you enjoy or not?

24 responses to “Book Review – Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

  1. Thanks for choosing this book, Polly. It really took me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t particularly enjoy the story, probably because I truly detested the characters and also because it just seemed in need of some judicious editing. But I’m glad I read it.

    • HAHA, I’m sure that judicious editing would have reduced the long middle bit somewhat. Glad you experienced it though.

  2. I haven’t posted my thoughts yet -still compiling them- but really enjoyed reading yours, Polly. I love that this book elicited such strong, mainly enthusiastic, responses from us. Thanks for a great choice! I am very glad that I read it and loved its delightfully wicked content.

    • Thanks Claire, I too loved it’s wicked content. What a brilliant discussion it was and I’m glad you loved it as much as me.

  3. Pingback: Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Choderlos de Laclos « Savidge Reads

  4. Thank you for chosing this book. I know that I didn’t enjoy it but I’m pleased that I now have a good understanding of it. I don’t think I’d have ever picked this up without the book group and I now know why some people love it. I love the way the book group takes you out of your comfort zone!

    I’m looking forward to watching the film now!

    • Jackie – you’re so right I love that about the book group! I don’t think I would ever have read FF Algernon otherwise and I’m so glad that I did.

  5. Pingback: Les Liaisons Dangereuses | Paperback Reader

  6. Great review and it’s wonderful to read different perspectives on it. Coincidentally, I saw the book the other day at the library, looking longingly at me but it sounds rather heavy going so the book will have to wait for another rainy day. Names and titles are a huge problem for me when reading French classics – they’re so long and many sound similar but they’re not as bad as the Russian names!

    Love the bookmark. It’s very fitting of the theme!

    • I thought that the bookmark was so pretty when I saw it that I just had to have it. I think that they could improve Les Liaisons with a sort of ‘cast list’ at the beginning but I suppose that might take the flavour of the letter format away.

  7. Fab thoughts and a fab choice, cheers Polly!

  8. Funny, you are coorect I think in saying it’s like reading a gossip magazine, except of course it ends in tears. One gets the pleasure of enjoying people give way to their worst impulses, the two main characters being two Emperor Neros set at each other’s throats, with the comeuppance at the end tacked on.

  9. I loved both the book and the film starring John Malkovitch. They are deliciously wicked like a chocolate truffle.. Great blog.

  10. Pingback: Novel Insights February Review « Novel Insights

  11. This book is one of my favorites, but I think it’s a little more serious than you let on. That is, I don’t think it was written simply as a diversion, but as an examination of some really tortured and corrupt psychologies.

    I love epistolary novels, and this is surely among the best.

    • novelinsights

      You’re right, perhaps from my review it’s not clear how dark some of the storyline is. I didn’t think that it was written simply as a diversion but I do think that there is an element of frivolity which reflects the nature of society. Having said that, the intentions of the key characters are surely very serious.

  12. can anyone tell me, we’re there letters that we’re left out? i have a copy that ends on letter 175. then there is a footnote that says
    ‘for motives of our own- and certain other considerations which we shall always consider it is our duty to respect- we are compelled to stop here’

    bla bla bla then it says that someday they might complete it. can i get my hands on these letters anywhere?
    someone please help me

    • novelinsights

      Hi Belinda. I’m not sure but I think it’s a stylistic thing – The letters aren’t real but the story is positioning itself as ‘real’ and it adds an element of mystery to suggest that there might be something missing that is even more dramatic and despicable in content!

  13. that sux, i want the more dramatic and despicable content. like she was found and was sentenced to some horrible ending

  14. Pingback: 2010 in Review – My Favourite Reads | Novel Insights

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