Saturday, March 27, 2010

Redux #23 - "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

Most people can basically agree when a book is well-written, but when it comes to people's "favorite books" the meaning is much more personal. I had heard people gushing over The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I was disappointed when I finally read it. Although I appreciated the writing, it just didn't resonate with me. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006--translated from French in 2008) by Muriel Barbery was exactly the opposite. Well, not really the opposite, because not only did I appreciate the writing, but I loved this book. My favorite since I read The White Tiger last year, reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog was like finding a store of hidden treasure; I've waited years to find a book as entertaining, moving, and thought-provoking as this one. That being said, of course, I'm not sure that everyone would love this book. It might be for some like The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was for me, but most people would at least appreciate the writing and originality.

I started reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog after I'd heard about it from a number of different sources, and I came into it with little knowledge and low expectations. I knew vaguely that it involved a grumpy concierge, a young girl, and lots of philosophy. Philosophy has never been a favorite topic of mine. Once questions get abstract I lose interest and get frustrated with the pointlessness of endless discussion over something without a real answer. Thus, I was thinking that I might have to slog through this one. But then, even on the very first page, it captured my attention. Renée Michel is the concierge in a posh building and her smart, scathing ruminations on her rich, rude employers sets the tone for the book. And when Paloma, the twelve-year-old girl who lives upstairs joins in with her own incredibly honest and funny observations of the lives around her, it just gets better. It's hard to even explain, but Barbery has this amazing talent of recreating simple, normal events in everyday life with an eye for the beauty, the absurd, and the real, that made this book unforgettable. There was some philosophy that had me grumbling once in awhile. I sincerely wondered why it was necessary to talk about some philosopher's idea of how we see objects in our world, but the philosophy is always in short bits and mixed together so well with the funny bits that it never felt like it was dragging.

And then I continued reading, and I got more and more involved with the characters. Paloma and Renée are sad characters in many ways, but because the story is told from their point of view and they don´t feel sorry for themselves, there is not much pathos. And then there were a couple of unexpected turns of events, and I found myself alternately crying and laughing at Barbery´s wonderful storytelling. And by the end of the book, most of it came together in a confluence of meaning and beauty. As I understood Renée´s life more, her philosophy, her attitude, and the things she focuses on made more sense. After finishing the novel, I decided I wouldn´t want Barbery to omit any of the philosophy because it was reading the whole that affected me so strongly. This is one of those books that I wish I had bought instead of borrowing from the library, and I probably will buy it soon just to read it again. I'm pretty sure I'd get even more out of a second reading.

"Dull repetition has come to tear me from my thoughts once again--boredom was born on a day of uniformity." (p. 163)

"Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language." (p. 160)

"It is because they have never seen you...I would recognize you anywhere." (p. 303)

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