The Invention of Hugo Cabret


Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity.

But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy.

A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

~ Synopsis from goodreads

This is my first time reading a novel that depends so much on illustrations for the telling of the story. I don’t know how to qualify this book exactly, it’s not really a graphic novel, or a picture book. It’s a combination of text and images to tell a story.

And it’s really well-done in my opinion.

The interesting thing is that the graphics are not an addition to the text. There are pages and pages of drawings that you have to read to understand how the story has progressed.

At first, I skipped the drawings (really not a visual person), and was alarmed to find the story had moved in leaps and bounds, so I went back and actually went through each drawing, and am impressed by how effectively they told the story. I didn’t need any captions or further explanations.

Here’s an example of the quality of the graphics in the book.

The beautiful illustrations

The beautiful illustrations

Of course, I would have really liked some color, but I can understand how that would amplify the printing costs, and the cost of the book as well.

The story itself is a bit of a disappointment. It starts off strongly setting up the story of a small boy (Hugo Cabret) who is the orphaned son of a clock-maker, living in the walls behind a Parisian train station, maintaining the station’s clocks, stealing bread and milk to survive,

He also steals small mechanical parts such as nuts and bolts to complete an automaton that his father was working on when he died. All these details, I loved!

One day, when he gets caught by the shop owner, his life, and the life of the shop-owner change drastically, as they together start to investigate the mystery of the automaton.

Aaah, now we come to the automaton! And here is where the book started to lose me.

The automaton referred to here is a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being. And before I read this book, I had no idea that there was such a thing.

I also did not know that it was based on the true life story of the French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès – who ended his life destitute and selling toys in a railway station.

All this research really impressed me, and I really loved the tidbits about early French cinema, but in spite of all these really interesting elements at play, something stopped working for me.

I think the writing and plot was so one-note that I didn’t get as engrossed and gripped by the book as I expected to be towards the end. What I mean to say is that a lot of exciting things happened, but the writing style failed to excite me as a reader.

I also think that the high expectations set up by the really excellent first half kind of doomed the second half, which was good, but not as good as I expected.

Snubnose who was reading the book with me also felt the same. The moment the focus changed to Georges Méliès and the automaton, she lost interest, and I can understand why. It was hard for her to even relate to the old-style of film-making, and the marvels of an automaton. She slogged through about three-quarters of the book before giving up.

Overall, loved the concept, loved most of the book, but was a bit lost by all the action and secondary characters that comprised the second half of the book.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    I loved this book too. I am blown away by his illustrations!


    I loved this book actually – even the story. Story was a blend of nonfiction and fiction and I loved the fact that the book talks about a person I did not even know contributed so much to the movies. I mainly got this book for the illustrations so story was not so important for me.

  • I was sad about this book! The illustrations are so gorgeous, and then the story — yeah, the story’s just not nearly as good as the pictures. Which! I find is often the case when the same person writes the book and does the illustrations. Writer/artist teams are the way to go, I think!

    • Nishita

      @readingtheend:disqus I have never actually read a book that is so picture-heavy, so I can’t comment. But definitely felt that the story execution didn’t live up to the pictures. The text felt so dull.

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