★★★★★: Spooky underwater hell opera kidnapping rescue romance time with THE GHOST!
The Phantom of the Opera has been a huge cultural phenomenon since 1986 saw the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of the story. Now, full disclosure, I haven't seen the musical. The only film version I've seen is the 1925 silent movie, which already felt like quite a departure from the book in some respects - but this is probably inevitable. To me a lot of what made the 1910 book so enjoyable was the sense of atmosphere that I'm not sure can be created in the same way on film or onstage.
It's obvious to me at this point that I love Victorian melodrama, gothic horror stories, and tales of daring rescue (given that I loved Baroness Emma Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel so much). I was already pretty sure I was going to love this book before I read it, and I was not disappointed.
In Leroux's book, there is a beautiful co-mingling of tongue-in-cheek melodrama ("We will lodge a complaint against THE GHOST"), genuine horror and an unfaltering sense of confusion regarding whether our villain is truly of this world, as well as a sincere, passionate, and sort of frenetic romance which is in peril for all of the book's length. Raoul is an anxious, slightly petulant, but ultimately endearing character. Perhaps it says a lot about me that I deeply relate to the man who at one point must restrain himself from crying out "I am jealous! I am jealous! I am jealous!" - but really, I love Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. He is youthfully immature and dramatic, but understandably so amongst the confusion and mysteries of the opera house. He's a good lad and I wish the best for him.
The book manages to make most, if not all of its characters quite complex and sympathetic. I've heard the novel described as "pulpy" but to me it felt quite emotionally dense. Erik, THE OPERA GHOST, is a skillfully written character. Whilst he is our villain (and in this version his "romance" with Christine Daaé is entirely unrequited, which I think ultimately tells a much more compelling and poignant story), we come to understand his motives. Most importantly, Erik has a character arc here which allows him humanity and redemption. He is condemned for his actions, yes, but he has opportunity within the narrative to be both tortured and compassionate. He is not a two-dimensional monster who gets his comeuppance, nor is he an anti-hero whose actions are waved away under a titillating cultural notion of sexy, dangerous romance (as some later adaptations would lean towards).
Christine operates on this fine line between shell-shocked, confused, strongly religiously influenced and possibly demonically spellbound, and someone who is cunning in her moments of realisation. She is close to being a damsel in distress initially, but ultimately this story is one that centres on her realising and asserting her own autonomy. She has a cluelessness and a great deal of easily manipulated compassion about her. She is a woman torn between her own needs and a sense of duty to meet the needs of others. This is why I prefer this portrayal of Erik's affections as unrequited.
Overall I just have so much love for this book and all its weird, silly, spooky, intense atmosphere, its engaging characters, and the fascinating setting of the Paris opera house. The story is compelling and effectively spooky, the characters are well-explored, and by the end of the book I felt like I had traversed something genuine. I also really appreciated the little touches of humour here and there that add a little extra touch of depth in tone to the story.
It's also given me what will henceforth serve as my life motto: