Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Summary (Courtesy of  Goodreads): We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

My sister recommended this book to me a long time ago, so I've had it on my to-read list for a while. However, I'd read quite a few negative reviews of this book, so I never had it really high on my priority list. I should trust my sister more, because she knew what she was talking about. Also, she knows me. This book was a perfect fit for me.

Now, I'll say upfront that I can see why people gave this so many negative reviews. I can see how people would find it pretentious or overly-full-of-its-own-wisdom or whatever. And I didn't necessarily find either the characters or the story to be exactly perfect. I didn't quite find it convincing that Renee's whole hang-up with the upper-class hinged on her sister's tragic episode of decades before. She seemed intellectually smart enough to be more emotionally mature than that. And for all her brilliance, Paloma was still such a pre-teen, so narrowly-focused on her own problems and so utterly sure of her own view of the world. As if even a genius can have life figured out at the tender age of twelve. So yes, I can see how people would be annoyed by the characters, or find the story lacking, or just be plain bored (the plot is rather slow-moving).

But there were so many beautiful moments, especially from Renee. I loved her reflections about life and beauty and culture. I loved her obsession with Russian literature (reminded me of a dear friend and old roommate), and I laughed at her response to people who made grammar mistakes. Her opinions about using correct language (and her snarky criticism of those who don't) reminded me so much of my husband (and I mean that in as loving a way as possible). There were simply beautiful nuggets of wisdom and depth tucked neatly throughout the story. This is a book to be read slowly with a highlighter and notepad, slowly savoring the beautiful images. I actually regret a bit that I listened to this one as an audio book, because I found myself thinking all the time about how I wanted to stop and think about some of these ideas more slowly. Someday maybe I'll find a hard copy and read it again (I'm not sure I loved it quite enough to actually buy it).

So, as far as recommendations go, this one isn't for everyone. It's not necessarily a light or easy read, it's not necessarily flawless. But for those who don't mind a little substance and enjoy really beautiful writing, this one is well worth your time.

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