Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


Fiction, originally in French, translated by Alison Anderson.  This is one of the best books I have read in a long time!  I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, even when I had to re-read lines occasionally to make sure I grasped the complicated philosophy the main characters were debating and explaining.  The setting is an expensive French apartment building with some very well-to-do and very bourgeois occupants.  The chapters alternate between two characters narrating, the first is Renee, the 54-year-old concierge who takes care of the building and who does not want anybody to know how intelligent she is (loves Tolstoy), feeling it is her duty to fulfill everybody's preconceived notions of what her role is in society.  The other narrating voice is that of Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who is a genius and a resident of the building, who hates the hypocrisy she sees all around here, and who feels she has learned everything there is to know about life.  So, she declares she will kill herself on her thirteenth birthday and set her parents' apartment on fire.  She has planned it out logically, her reasons seem to have sense, and she is going to make certain nobody is hurt in the process.  In the meantime, she will start two journals to see if there is anything she missed that would make continuing to live have some point or meaning or something else for her to learn.

The best way I can explain the feel of this book is the film Amelie.  It is quirky, funny, deeply serious, and yet it feels light and you cannot put it down or turn away from the work.  The plot description makes it sound dark and depressing, but it really is filled with wonderful philosophy in a way that is approachable, with tons of wonderful nuggets and quotations about life and what it means to be human, and ultimately displays hope even with elements of great sadness and loneliness.  I knew I loved Renee the moment she put Structuralism in its place and called it out for its nonsense!  She also happens to love some of my other favorite things: Japanese culture (particularly the Tea Ceremony), good films, and Dutch still-lifes.  So, I am probably pretty biased with this character since we have several interests in common, except Tolstoy, I am still dealing with War and Peace and I am none too sure I will ever finish it.

I won't say too much more because I would not want to ruin it for others.  But I will say read it, the book is quite worth your time!  One of my favorite quotations from the work is: “What we know of the world is only the idea that our consciousness forms of it.”

And so it goes...

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