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Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From Goodreads.com:

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.

I found this book very odd to listen to. I mostly mean that in a good way, although there are times that I wasn’t sure.

The first half of the book kept rambling off on tangents, usually (but not always) interesting ones. I drifted along, bemused, as Renée pontificated on philosophy or stories about people she knew; or as 12 year old Paloma talked about how pointless her life was. I admit, I let it flow by at times, listening but not always absorbing what was said.

In the second part of the book, the story came together. Parts that I let slip by me became relevant. I got to know the characters much better, and finally connected with them.

The characters, particularly the main characters of Renée and Paloma are the heart of this book. Although they both interest me, I didn’t like either of them as much as I expected to, or as I think I should. Both were very smart female characters, which is often enough to make me bond with them. In both cases, I was too far into the book before I really understood why they needed to hide their intelligence from everyone around them.

I also continue to think on Ozu and Manuela, two key secondary characters. I wish both had been fleshed out more. Ozu never felt like more than a plot device to me, although a very pleasant one. Manuela was a foil for Renée. Yet, I still perked up whenever they entered.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure all of this is deliberate, that’s the way I’m supposed to feel as I make my through the book. I think everything I perceived as borderline negative when reading adds to the final understanding of the book.

This was a very intricate book, not in its plot, but in the characters and in the telling. There were many small pieces that interlocked in unexpected ways.

I’d really like to reread this book. I suspect that on a second time through, I would love this book rather than simply liking it a lot like I do now.

I think this would make an excellent book club selection, and will consider suggesting it to one of my clubs next time we select books.

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Posted by on January 13, 2010 in books, reviews

 

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