I can't give this book any less than five stars, even though I know its flaws (which I'll get to in a minute). I become an obsessed melancholy fangirl when I read it--this was the third or fourth time I've read it in my life, and surely not the last--and it kept me up late turning pages time and time again. Notice how I finished it in three weeks, despite turning each of those 1,200 pages. (Well, this time it was on Nook, so it was more like tapping than turning.)
Technically I did read the unabridged, but I skimmed the parts that likely get abridged--histories, monologues, and other flights of dense detail. That said, I think it might be good to choose the unabridged and give yourself the option of dwelling in those historical moments or Deep Hugo Thoughts if you feel like it.
Things I love:
The seriously difficult character dilemmas.
The way you can feel sympathy for every character (okay, not so much the Thenardiers).
The cool adventure.
The totally swoonworthy romance.
The feeling of this being utterly real despite it being obviously dated.
The feeling of wanting to be a better person yourself because of what you see these characters go through.
Really, those wordy chapters that aren't about the main characters do get irritatingly in the way at exciting places sometimes.
Fair dose of Victorian melodrama. ("See Marius angst. Angst, Marius, angst," as a Les Mis forum summarized one section. And the angst is certainly not confined to Marius.)
Too many crazy coincidences. You'd think France was about a mile square with a population of fifty people, the way they all keep running into each other in the darnedest places.
Still, I absolutely love this story, and will surely spend more time with it over the course of my life. Likely I'll begin by writing a condensed parody version of the unabridged, just to make myself smile and allow myself to linger in Les-Mis world.
Random update, from June 25: Note for self and posterity: in the past, in reading this book, I assumed the chapter "A Heart Beneath a Stone" was Hugo rhapsodizing about love, rather than giving us the actual text of Marius' letter to Cosette. I suppose I figured the letter was too personal to share or something. This time around, I succeeded in realizing that "A Heart Beneath a Stone" (http://www.classicreader.com/book/268/246/ ) *is* Marius' letter to her--his assorted heartfelt thoughts that he occasionally scribbled in a notebook, which was mentioned in an earlier chapter, in which he called it "writing to her." Yes, hi, I'm dense. Makes me love Marius that much more, though, if those are *his* words.