Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about the lives of the residents of an upscale French apartment house, focusing on the frumpy, introverted caretaker Renée and the precocious twelve-year-old Paloma, who has decided to kill herself at age 13. The book is told through the diaries each of them keep, cutting back and forth between their viewpoints. It felt, to me, like a very French book. Not just because of the frequent use of French words, but because the culture it described felt very different than my own.

At first, I didn't really like Renée. She is obsessed with the class differences between her and the apartment residents. I couldn't figure out why she hid behind the facade she had created, pretending to be an uneducated peasant when she was actually an intelligent, sophisticated woman. Without giving anything away, though, once I found out more about her past and how she came to make the decisions she made, my heart really opened up to Renée and I liked the character quite a bit.

As for Paloma: anyone who read my review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie may have noticed that one of my least favorite character types is the precocious child. Reading her parts was an uphill battle for me to begin with. Sadly, I really didn't like Paloma any more at the end of the book than I did at the beginning.

I read Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog for my book club. I'll be honest: I wouldn't have finished it if I hadn't needed to. It took me a really long time to get into this book. I was warned that it started out slow, but I would say that I didn't start to warm up to it until about page 150 (of only 325 pages).

This is not to say that there weren't some great moments in this book. The diaries by Paloma and Renée each have their own distinct voice, but both have passages that had me reaching for my little flags, to mark the spot. Paloma's diaries drip with sarcasm - the architect in me particularly liked this from her, describing dinner at a fancy restaurant:
When the French want to get away from the traditional "Empire" style with burgundy drapes and gilt galore, they go for hospital style. You sit on these Le Corbusier chairs ("By Corbu," says Maman) and you eat out of these white plates with very Soviet-bureaucracy geometrical shapes, and you dry your hand in the restroom on towels so thin that they don't absorb a thing.
In contrast, I felt like Renée's diary was more measured, and while not necessarily softer, more willing to see the good and bad in life. More grown-up, I guess.
...I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. The painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.
I don't really have a recommendation for this one, whether you should read it or not. If you have read it, I would love to hear your opinion.

Buy The Elegance of the Hedgehog on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. It is good to read your review. I have been hot to read this one, but now that I hear your perspective I will prbobably get it from the library instead of buying it.


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