I first learned about Dangerous Liaisons when I saw the 1988 Stephen Frears film by the same name. I loved and enjoyed the film immensely and that made me want to read the book it was based on. Having just finished the novel, I have to say, I am sad at not having read it earlier (not that that in any way impeded my enjoyment of the book itself) It is possible (to some degree) that I would have appreciated the novel more had I not already seen the film. As it was, I already knew how the story would unfold and that, to a certain degree, lessened its impact.
Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary novel and the letters exchanged between the various characters paints a vivid of picture of them all. They give you a rare insight into their thoughts that would have otherwise been impossible or seemed contrived. They made their motivations and intentions laid bare. The novel progresses at a slightly slow pace, so it took me some time to adjust to that, more so, because having watched the film first, I expected the events to unfold at a faster pace. But that was more my problem than a criticism of the book itself.
Of the principle characters, the Marquise de Merteuil is possible the best conceived female protagonist, as well as arguably the strongest female character, I have ever come across. She had a devilish charm that despite her reprehensible actions , I found myself, oddly enough, rooting for her. For the Vicomte de Valmont, on the other hand, I felt somewhat more ambivalent. The casual cruelty, often for no other reason than to alleviate their boredom, with which they treated (manipulated) other people, treated them less as fellow human beings than mere objects at their disposal, was quite chilling.
Of the secondary characters, Cecile and Danceny were malleable in the way that people are at that age, easily swayed by emotions. Their lives thrown in turmoil, because they were unfortunate enough to be caught in the Marquise’s web of revenge.
It was the fate of Madame de Tourvel, that inspired the most sympathy. She tried so hard to resist Valmont and stay faithful to her husband, but it was a lost cause from the very beginning since she had no idea just what she was up against and just how doggedly she would be pursued. She never stood a chance. Valmont’s wooing of her was so clinical and detached, the only time he seemed genuinely affected was when she suddenly left Madame de Rosemonde’s estate. And even then, he feels more slighted for his ego and vows revenge on her for thwarting his advances.
Of Valmont’s love for her; I don’t know if he would not have eventually hurt her of his own accord. Perhaps, all Merteuil did was expedite the process. That’s what she was truly brilliant at, for making the other person do something without expressly coming out and stating what she wanted done, she actually just gave a slight push in the direction the character was already inclined towards.
For a largely self-made woman, the Marquise had little to no sympathy for her fellow women and was more than happy to use them to further her own cause. She views most of them as silly and blames them for their own misfortune. I suppose it is true that woman are hardest on other women. As far as Valmont is concerned, I think, to a certain extent, it is his hatred towards women that spurs him on. Of all his female acquaintances, it is only the Marquise whom he views as almost as equal. Though, as it turns out that, she is actually better at their game than he is. Ultimately, it is his vanity and her pride that spells their downfall. He couldn’t tolerate even the idea that he might be laughed at and she couldn’t tolerate being second best to anyone.
As slow as the novel seemed to me, I still highly recommend it. The only thing that perhaps keeps me from giving it a full 5 stars, is the ending and more specifically the fate of the Marquise de Merteuil, that seemed very moralistic to me and not-in-keeping with the general tone of the book.