Monday, February 08, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

When I picked up The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, I really had no idea what the book was about. I had heard a lot of really good things about it, and the cover art was very appealing. The description on the flap made it sound like a nice light read with quirky characters. Well, I had the part about the quirky characters right at least. I took it on a trip to Cleveland so had plenty of time flying and waiting for planes to read it.

Renee Michel is a 54-year-old concierge for the upscale apartment building at 7 rue de Grenelle in Paris. She spends her time trying to appear to be uncultured to the residents in her building, but she spends her evenings reading Tolstoy and Husserl. Paloma Josse is a 12-year-old resident of the building who is so intelligent she feels that she must pretend to be less intelligent in school to avoid being an outcast. Her efforts to be less intelligent still put her at the top of her class. She feels that her sister and family are all snobs and wants to teach them a lesson in humility. The book goes back and forth between the two main characters’ stories until a new resident, Kakuro Ozu, moves into the building and befriends both Renee and Paloma. The story is character driven so you will enjoy it if you love interesting characters. Barbery succeeds in giving them each a very distinct voice.

What surprised me about the novel was the fact that about half of it was philosophical wanderings by the main characters. It reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Once I was acclimated to the style of the book, I was hooked. I made sure not to make eye contact with any of my neighbors on the various flights so I could spend the whole time reading and not have to make small talk. This book stuck with me for a while after finishing it. That, to me, is quite high praise because I tend to forget half the plot of a book a day or two after reading it.

The novel is actually the second book about this apartment building, but was the first to be translated to English from French. The first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, has recently been translated to English. I highly recommend this one as well, but I suggest reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog first. I prefer the story, and it will make you appreciate Barbery's writing style all the more in Gourmet Rhapsody. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is available at VBPL in print, CD audio book, and as an Overdrive downloadable audio book.

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