Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery

New York, Europa Editions, 2006

Week 33      Fiction

I hardly know where to begin. I guess I will begin by saying that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is my favorite book of the year thus far, and probably one of my favorite books since I began reading purposefully for my book club, which has been in existence for 6 years.

Part philosophical meandering, part literary fiction, and part social satire, the book tells the stories of a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of wealthy intellectuals, and the concierge in her building, a 54-year-old recluse and closet intellectual. What we learn about them comes from their thoughts; for 12-yr.-old Paloma, they are written down in a journal and in a diary of “Profound Thoughts.” In these writings, she ponders her fate; is she to grow up and be just like her parents and sister, who she finds to be living unfortunate lives, or is she to kill herself before her thirteenth birthday? Madame Michel—Renee, on the other hand, ponders philosophy, music, literature, and good food, but feels she has to hide all this in order to survive as a concierge. So, she leaves the television running all day, wears clumsy slippers, and cooks cabbage to smell up her apartment. Paloma hides her true self behind a façade of petulance and sarcasm. Renee hides her true self behind a façade of self-loathing and quasi-ignorance.

The plot, if there is one, begins about mid-book when a retired Japanese businessman, Monsieur Ozu, moves into the building. He quickly sees beyond their facades and offers each of them a hand of friendship. He becomes intrigued with Paloma’s intelligence and asks her some probing questions that reveal her true nature. He recognizes in Renee a true soul mate; someone who appreciates all that he appreciates; someone who can share art, music, and literature with him. Age and class mean nothing to him, and he offers Renee and Paloma a place where they can belong. By the time the climax of the plot comes, all three characters have stretched and grown and become better people.

There is amazing writing in this book. The title comes from some of Paloma’s thoughts, when she begins pay attention to Madame Michel. She says: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.”

As I said earlier, I loved this book, but if you are looking for a book with a lot of plot, action, and twists and turns, this is not a book for your summer reading. I was all alone at my sister’s cottage when I read it, and it was the perfect setting. I could become completely lost in the beauty of the words and ideas. I spent a long time thinking about the face we must show to the world, and the inner face we share with no one—or perhaps one or two others. My husband always says to me when I am sitting quietly, “What are you thinking about?” Sometimes I want to share my thoughts with him; sometimes I just want to sit with them—remain lost in those thoughts.

Reviews on this book are a bit mixed. Several discussed the European flavor of the book and commented that an American writer most likely would not have written it. Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy and has written another book, Une Gourmandise, which is being translated into English following the success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has also been made into a movie. I didn’t much like the review in the New York Times, but I thought that the Washington Post review was more insightful:

I also was impressed with this blog posting on Huffington Post.

One of the interesting sidelights to this book is that it has pretty much grown in popularity by word of mouth. Isn’t it amazing, that some books or movies open to great fanfare, i.e. The DaVinci Code, or others of that type, while other books come to our consciousness sideways—by word of mouth or mention in an article or review of another book. I am grateful to my book club friend for bringing this book to us; my soul is better because of it.

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