So, my book club met today for lunch. Around mouthfuls of chips and salsa, we chatted about our reading experiences and I’m happy to say that it was a blazing success.
First, just in case you’re wondering, this is not a book that sheds any light on care and keeping of hedgehogs. If you’ve been long harboring a desire to keep a hedgehog as a pet and pick this book up for insight, you’ll be very surprised in the first few pages. Fair warning.
A brief summary to bring you up to speed, thanks to my good friends at Amazon. Actually, it’s more like I want to be friends and they pretty much just pretend I don’t exist. But I digress.
Synopsis of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renee: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renee lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company.
Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbors will dramatically alter their lives forever.
Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I have finished this book if I wasn’t in a book club? Um, that’s a big negatory. It’s New York Times bestseller moniker is deservedly earned because the writing is beautiful and the concept of the book is charming. Originally, the book was written in French and has since been translated into English. One of the Amazon reviewers said that the translation was very good, and I have no qualms accepting her opinion as truth. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been praised by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Publishers Weekly and Elle (Italy).
I’ll be honest. I found the book fairly dense. The cadence of the writing was hard to get into, even though the chapters were all short. To be fair, the accounts of Renee and Paloma’s lives are actually quite interesting, if hard to relate to. However, in between snippets of the story we as readers are “treated” to long soliloquies about their thoughts on philosophy (who cares about phenomenology?) and the mundane (how much can one say about a rugby player?) for pages and pages. At times I thought, “This writing is really beautiful.” But most of the time, I found myself so tangled up in verbiage that I could not have recounted what was happening for any amount of money.
I was also duped. The back cover copy makes it sound as though the book is a tale of this older concierge and the younger charge’s friendship. In reality, very little of that happens until the last several pages.
Had the book been severely edited, I definitely would have enjoyed it much more fully. As it was, the last 60 pages or so kept me riveted but I wouldn’t have made it that far without the desire to keep myself from bringing shame to my family’s name by flunking out of book club.
On a positive note, because so much of the book is the rambling thoughts of these two characters, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is certainly quotable. I made notations of words and phrases that stuck out to me as delicate thoughts that I’d like to remember. Here are a few of them:
The title phrase:
From Paloma’s POV: “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.”
Paloma on grammar:
“Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or written a fine sentence…But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.”
“And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”
Renee on reading:
“I have read so many books…and yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, wearing together all the disparate strands of my reading–and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.”
Bottom Line: If you’re a person who likes more of a literary read and appreciates a refined turn of phrase more than character development and storyline, this is the book for you. However, if you feel as though life is too short to read discourses on phenomenology and poetic musings on rugby players, better skip this one altogether.