Book Review – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

So here it is, the book that enticed me to clean the house from top to bottom with both girls in tow so that I could indulge in some reading time when Granny had Miss Two.  Knowing how much trouble I usually have in getting the housework done with the help of a two year old, and how I usually spend my toddler-free time cooking or gardening (after the house is cleaned of course) goes some way to describing just how much I enjoyed this book.  It is beautiful and so very French in the best possible way.  I was going to say, if you only read one book this year, make it this one.  But then I did a little research and read some other reviews and there are plenty of people who would strongly disagree with my gushing admiration of Muriel Barbery’s masterpiece.  It seems those in the opposing camp (I love how books can so ardently divide people, makes for such wonderful conversation) found it banal, self-indulgent and unrealistic.  In fact one reviewer called it “bloggishly self-indulgent”, perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much!

The story is set in 7, Rue de Grenelle, a luxury apartment building housing some of Paris’s wealthiest and most privileged citizens and follows the lives of two of its inhabitants.  First is Renee Michel, a lowly concierge living a clandestine existence in which she feigns ignorance and stupidity in public while actually being highly intelligent and a self-taught expert on literature, art and philosophy.  She devours the written word in all it’s forms.  At 54 years old Renee, a widower for many years, shares her life with few, a cat name Leo (as in Tolstoy) and Manuela, a Portuguese immigrant employed by several of the residents to clean their large, over-stuffed apartments.

The second crucial character is Paloma Josse, a twelve year old girl, making plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday in a desperate attempt to avoid the vacuous bourgeois existence she feels destined to live.  In the remaining year of her life she determines to keep two journals, one of Profound Thought and one of The Movement of the World, both last ditch efforts to find something meaningful in the world that might be worth living for.

The lives of both characters are ultimately transformed by one event.    A resident dies at 7, Rue de Grenelle and the apartment is sold to someone outside the family, something that hadn’t happened in more than two decades.  The new resident is Kakuro Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman.  He too is a lover of art and literature and surprises Renee by quoting a line from Anna Karenina – a book she knows intimately and adores.  This is enough for her to forget her front and respond in a way that belies her mask of ignorance.  Intrigued, Kakuro sets about getting to know the real Renee.  Kakuro also makes an instant connection with Paloma when they find themselves in the lift together one morning.  After a brief conversation he explains his theory about their mysterious concierge and finds Paloma thinks similarly.  The two of them collude to break down the wall Renee has so carefully built around herself.

Once Renee realises that there is no fooling either Kakuro or Paloma she opens herself up to the most fulfilling of relationships with the two of them.  She finds in Kakuro someone whose perspective on life is completely congruent with her own that he can almost read her thoughts.  With Paloma she discovers a soul mate, as she said, the child she would have had, had she been fortunate enough to have any.  Paloma is so very like Renee, intelligent, different and misunderstood.  The two of them fit together in a way neither had found with anyone else.

The story itself is charming, though perhaps its critics are right in declaring it implausible.  In my opinion this matters little – I don’t read fiction to find reality, but rather fantasy.  What I loved about this book was its focus on the small, sometimes forgotten, part of life; the perfect movement of an athlete on TV, enjoying a rare morning cup of tea with a friend and the beauty of the camelias in the courtyard among others.  It reminds me of French films in the way it savours the little details.  The story unfolds slowly, languidly, taking the time to explore the characters, their inner most thoughts and the situation they find themselves in. Though the ending is not what I was hoping for (I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic at times) even I can concede that it is probably the perfect ending and again so very French.

While this magnificent novel wasn’t the kind of read that instantly grips you, it worked it’s way into my heart and mind quite unexpectedly.  I found myself constantly drawn to it, I read it while feeding Baby Good breakfast and while Miss Two played with her teddies in the afternoon.  I even read it between reading story books to the girls, we’d read one of theirs and then while Miss Two picked the next book, I’d read a couple of pages of this.  But I almost couldn’t bare to finish it, I sat on those last twenty pages for several days, before taking myself to my room to languish in them this afternoon.

And that’s it, the first book of the year and the first of my goal of fifteen books for 2012.  Next on the list is the highly recommended (by Liz) but incredibly daunting A Suitable Boy. I have a beach holiday coming up so with a break from normal life I thought I might just be able to tackle this monster.

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15 Responses to Book Review – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. theveryhungrybookworm says:

    Your review makes me want to pick this book back up. I bought it last year and the beginning seemed so depressing (and I wasn’t in the best state myself at the time) that I didn’t think it was the best book for me to be reading. Perhaps I should try again 🙂

    • Barbara Good says:

      Hi, nice to have you around, I’ll be checking out your readings and writings soon. There is a definite depressive air at the start of the book, but that is more than made up for as the story unfolds.

  2. Alison says:

    I really liked this book too, but not the same way all the time. I liked the articulateness and clarity of the way the characters thought. I liked how the author left it so open for the reader to have opinions about each character, almost inviting. I looooved the chapter about Paloma’s explanation about why she enjoys choir so much. I feel the exact same way and often find it hard not to choke up when people sing great songs together (skipping the weekly National Anthem at work, for some reason). I know of nothing else that lifts hearts like singing together or music. Anyway, the whole story was a crisp watercolour for me 🙂 I really want my mum to like it but she can’t get started on it either!

    • Barbara Good says:

      I agree with your view too Alison, so perfectly articulate in language. Actually I loved both Paloma’s and Renee’s musings on grammar – a comma can be so much more than just a little scratching on a page. I also enjoyed Renee’s passage on the ritual of tea drinking.

  3. Andrea says:

    Well i think i must of stopped reading just before Kakuro made his appearance, i just couldn’t get into the book but its still in my pile(sort of down the bottom) and after your review i will try again.
    Was recently invited to choose as many books as i liked from a neighbor thats moving and downsizing and came home with a box of 28 books( i left some for others) I’m in heaven!!!!!

    • Barbara Good says:

      Andrea, I’m quite hesitant to recommend any book I love for fear that others will think the opposite and curse me, but the story does take on a more interesting path with the introduction of Kakuro so it might be worth a second look. I did enjoy it even before that though.

      So totally jealous of your new acquisitions, a list please, what gems have you taken in your stash.

  4. Victoria Clyne says:

    I loved this book too. This was picked for one of bookclubs, and I enjoyed it so much I have bought another of her books to add to my very very long to read list. But I am looking forward to it. Would like to know how you came across this book?

  5. Liz says:

    I will definitely look out for this. I’m feeling the pressure vis a vis A Suitable Boy….I adored it but you might find it a bit soap operaish, I reckon you know if you’ll enjoy within the first couple of chapters.

  6. Pingback: A review of 2012 | The New Good Life

  7. Leanne says:

    I’ve found it on so off to spend some of my credits. I haven;t read all of your review and comments – will come back and re read once listened to the book.
    Love Leanne

  8. barumiyalk says:

    I was searching for a recipe and came across your Blog Barbara, and have enjoyed my browse, we read this book in our book club a few years ago and had mixed reviews, I loved it myself and look forward to reading it again. Thanks for your most informative review, I think I will reread it now through different eyes. 🙂

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