Friday, December 11, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I should have read The Elegance of the Hedgehog with a highlighter in my hand (Not that I'll tell the librarians that I seriously considered defacing their property). I needed a highlighter because there were amazing one-liners I would love to have now. But of course looking back I can't pinpoint them immediately. They were the type of statements that you write out in pretty script and attach to your bedroom mirror to ponder on rising in the morning.

Alas, no quotes. Instead I will have to remember this book through its themes and totality. I requested Elegance of the Hedgehog because of a book group but had to wait nearly three months to get a copy. It is a popular book, but also a slow read which meant a long wait. I put the book down in the middle and considered returning it to the library without finishing it myself. I'm sooo glad I chose to keep reading.

It's important to understand that Barbery is French and the book has been translated into English. The translation is sound however the plot is so very French that it might put a reader off. The story has very little action and a lot of navel gazing. It's philosophy like most French literature. It discusses post-structuralism and Proust and Tolstoy. It is not a book to be read at the beach while keeping one eye on kids playing in the sand. It is a book that has to be read with both eyes and one's mind fully focused on the text.

The two main characters are Paloma a twelve-year old genius who finds her family ridiculous and beneath scorn and Renee a fifty-something concierge who waters plants and cleans brass doorknobs for a living but reads "transcendalist idealism" for fun. The two live in the same building and would never interact were it not for the introduction of a Japanese man named Kakuro who moves in.

More than anything what kept me going were the great satirical comments made by the two characters. They have incredibly unique views of the world and have no qualms about voicing their dislike of modern society, class-based society, hierarchy... Coming from two very different worlds they reach similar conclusions about the lack of depth in many of the people with whom they interact. But the book is in no way a farce. I cried reading it too.

I wholeheartedly recommend Elegance of the Hedgehog if you are looking for social commentary and have the time and attention to invest in the novel. Do not get frustrated in the middle and stop reading - believe me it is tempting. Keep pushing until Kakuro arrives and then the story picks up.

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If you liked Elegance of the Hedgehog try:

  • Marguerite Duras The Lover - one of my favorite French novels
  • Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy - a tome about Indian identity in a post-colonial world
  • Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner - a story of modern day Afghanistan

1 comment:

Dani said...

I will second the idea to push through the middle of the book. The last part was very enjoyable.

The description of the choir experience on pg.183 was so spot on. I feel that way too, and I get a little teary, too, in these situations.