Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Reviewed by Christina

Published: in French as L'élégance du hérisson in 2006.  In English, as translated by Alison Anderson, in 2008

It's about: 7 rue de Grenelle is a bourgeois Paris apartment building inhabited by successful, respected, well-educated, well-moneyed citizens.  They have no idea that their unassuming concierge, Renée Michel, is a closet intellectual who observes and sharply criticizes the residents' every word, every move, and every punctuation mark.  One of the residents, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, also hides her intelligence.  Paloma is extremely precocious and she has decided, since life is futile, to commit suicide and set fire to her home on her thirteenth birthday.
In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Renée and Paloma take turns pontificating, philosophizing, and gossiping for about 200 pages.  Then something like a story happens at the very end.

I thought: WOW, did I have a hard time getting into this bad boy.  My only thought for the first 150 pages was that this book was SLOW and pretentious.  The situation was probably exacerbated by the fact that I started listening to a little audiobook you might have heard of called The Hunger Games.  It happens to be the polar opposite of Hedgehog in just about every way possible.  But that's a story for another day.

Both narrators are elitists with nihilistic tendencies, and while they're interesting and unusual people, I'm not sure I found them immediately likeable- this might have been a big part of why I had such a hard time getting into the story.  I didn't understand why Madame Michel felt compelled to act the stereotype of a concierge, and while this is explained a bit throughout the book, I still felt there might be a cultural difference there.  Are the French more stringent about class position?  Speaking of French-ness, that was one thing I immediately loved about this book: It feels so French.  The translation is seamless; idioms are substituted well and some appropriate words remain in French.  I loved that Ms. Anderson retained that original flavor while also making the book perfectly accessible to English-language readers.

As I kept on reading, I found myself relating to Renée and Paloma more.  Both characters developed nicely.  This would be a good book to re-read, since I didn't fully appreciate the protagonists until the last third of the book.  And now that I've finished, I think of them as people I liked.  This book is ALL about the relationships developed between the characters, and I liked that there was also sort of a reader-character relationship development thing going on as I read.   It was like a 3-D effect, you know?  And by the time I got to the suddenly sad ending, I was really won over and feeling the shock and heartbreak they felt.

Verdict: Well, I'm definitely going to stick it on my shelf.  BUT!  My esteemed colleague, Ingrid, was not such a fan.  At all.  So I hope we'll get to hear from her in the comments.

Reading Recommendations:  Be prepared for that slow beginning.  Pick this one up when you're in the mood for some, like, Deep Thoughts, man.  The author is a Philosophy Prof, and it shows.   

Warnings: Uh, I can't really remember.  A couple of swears?

Favorite excerpts: "I smeared my lips with 1 layer of 'Deep Carmine' lipstick that I had bought 20 years ago for a cousin's wedding.  The longevity of such a useless item, when valiant lives are lost every day, will never cease to confound me.  I belong to the 8% of the world population who calm their apprehension by drowning it in numbers."

"This is the death of Dido, from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.  In my opinion, the most beautiful music for the human voice on earth.  It is beyond beautiful, it is sublime, because of the incredibly dense succession of sounds, as if each were linked to the next by an invisible force and, while each one remains distinct, they all melt into one another, at the edge of the human voice, verging on an animal cry.  But there is a beauty in these sounds that no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds.
Broken steps, melting sounds.
Art is life, playing to other rhythms."

What I'm reading nextMemoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El Sadaawi