Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

If you've seen the movie "Dangerous Liaisons" or "Cruel Intentions," then you have a pretty good grasp of what Les Liaisons Dangereuses is about. But I would still recommend reading the book because it's awesome.

Don't you love how my book reviews read like 6th 3rd grade book reports? I thought so.

Okay, I will say more. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is set in France during the 1780's (pre-Revolution). The format of the book is 175 letters written between the various characters. The two principle characters are the Vicomte (Viscount) de Valmont and the Marquise (Marchioness) de Merteuil. The book revolves around them and their relationship. Valmont is generally known as a rouge, a rake, a man who seduces women for sport. The Marquise, however, is a wealthy aristocratic widow who has maintained an air of social respectability. But she is the really the one to watch out for.

Valmont and M. de Merteuil meet when their respective lovers cast them aside in order to "hook up," for lack of a better term. The two of them form their own attachment (and by "attachment" I mean sexual dalliance) after the experience, and remain friends after they part ways. M. de Merteuil, however, holds quite a grudge against the man who cast her aside, the Comte (Count) de Gercourt. When the opportunity to get back at him presents itself, she takes advantage of it.

A distant relative of hers, the Madame de Volanges, has a fifteen year-old daughter fresh out of the convent, named Cecile, and she has arranged a marriage between her daughter and Gercourt. M. de Merteuil is outraged and insulted when she discovers this, in part because it adds insult to injury that she should in any way to related to Gercourt. So she hatches a plan to cuckhold Gercourt by ensuring that his innocent bride-to-be is not-so-innocent when she marries him. For this, she needs the assistance of her friend and legendary seducer-of-women, Valmont.

But Valmont has a scheme of his own. He is visiting his aunt's country home when he meets the Presidente de Tourvel, a beautiful and virtuous woman who is renowned for her faith, piety, and fidelity. What better challenge could there be, what greater claim to greatness could he acquire, than if he were to seduce the Presidente and gain her submission? He turns down M. de Merteuil's offer to seduce Cecile Volanges in order to focus on the Presidente. But M. de Merteuil does not give up, she just uses other means to accomplish her goal. Particularly she looks to a young chevalier (knight), Danceny, who shares a mutual affection with Cecile.

But when Valmont's efforts are hindered after Madame de Volanges tells the Presidente about his reputation, he decides to take his revenge upon Madame de Volanges by taking on the seduction of both the Presidente and Cecile.

Valmont and the M. de Merteuil are absolutely ruthless. They lie effortlessly in letters to their victims, then gleefully relate their successes in letters to each other. I love the letter format of this book because it beautifully demonstrates their duplicity and utter lack of shame. And although Valmont is the character who does most of the work in this book—he is the one doing the on-the-ground seduction—this book belongs to the M. de Merteuil. She's a fascinating character, and I think Laclos is an absolute genius for creating her and knowing exactly how she would act and react in certain situations. My favorite line of hers comes when she is describing her latest boy toy and how he wants their relationship to be exclusive: "He must rate me lightly indeed, if he believes he has worth enough to make me constant!" God, is that the story of my life or what?

Valmont's character development is certainly a crucial plot point of this book (and if I recall, it seemed to dominate the movie Cruel Intentions, too) as he begins to fall for the Presidente. But the M. de Merteuil is always one step ahead of him. She sees where he is heading long before he does. She knows just what buttons to push, exactly what to say in order to get Valmont to do what she wants him to do. She's not immune herself, however. The events she and Valmont have put into motion also drag her along a path she never intended to go down. But she was never manipulated. Unlike the other female characters in the book, she falls victim only to herself and her own weaknesses. Despite how evil she is, I love her for that. I respect her for it. She is a one-of-a-kind woman, and she knows it:

Oh! keep your advice and your fear for those delirious women who call themselves sentimental; whose exalted imagination would make one believe that nature has placed their senses in their heads; who, having never reflected, persist in confounding love with the lover; who, in their mad illusion, believe that he with whom they have pursued pleasure is its sole depository; and truly superstitious, show the priest the respect and faith which is only due to the divinity. Be still more afraid for those who, their vanity being larger than their prudence, do not know, at need, how to consent to being abandoned. Tremble, above all, for those women, active in their indolence, whom you call women of sensibility, and over whom love takes hold so easily and with such power; who feel the need of being occupied with it, even when they are not enjoying it; and, giving themselves up unreservedly to the fermentation of their ideas, bring forth from them those letters so sweet, but so dangerous to write, and are not afraid to confide these proofs of their weakness to the object which causes it: imprudent ones, who do not know how to discern in their present lover their enemy to be.

But what have I in common with these unreflecting women?

Above all else, Laclos's story is exquisitely crafted. And the translation I read by Ernest Dowson was also great; everything flowed wonderfully, and each character had their own tone that remained consistent throughout the book. There are parts of this book that made me laugh out loud and parts that made me gasp in disbelief at just how debase Valmont and the M. de Merteuil could be. As far as classics go, it is one of the most entertaining books I've read. If it weren't for the sexy sexy sex all throughout the book, I would have wondered why this isn't more standard school reading. Loved it.

Lindsey's Grade: A+


The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

Loved this one. Some of the best character names to ever grace a novel and it was very provocative.
All the very best, thanks for sharing.

Lindsey Lou said...

Thanks for commenting!