Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Note: You may have noticed that I'm suddenly pasting quite a few book blurbs into my reviews. That's because I'm horribly behind on my write-ups (well, behind by my standards), and also because last month I read quite a few "meh" books. So until I'm caught up and/or inspired to write more original reviews, this is what you get.
Publisher Comments for The Elegance of the Hedgehog:
The enthralling international bestseller.
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 12-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 16th 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.
And a review from Publishers Weekly:
This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the debut in English of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery. Renee Michel, 54 and widowed, is the stolid concierge in an elegant Paris hotel particulier. Though 'short, ugly, and plump,' Renee has, as she says, 'always been poor,' but she has a secret: she's a ferocious autodidact who's better versed in literature and the arts than any of the building's snobby residents. Meanwhile, 'supersmart' 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who switches off narration with Renee, lives in the building with her wealthy, liberal family. Having grasped life's futility early on, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who befriends both the young pessimist and the concierge alike, sets up their possible transformations. By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts.
Enthralling? I don't think I'd go quite that far. More like fair, with some foggy episodes. I added the second review because until I read it, I had no idea that the author was a professor of philosophy. Which totally makes sense, because this book is way heavy on the philosophy (that would be the foggy episodes). And I will confess that I only made it through college philosophy with the help of Cliff Notes (and that's the only time I resorted to using those little taxi-cab colored books, I swear). In fact, I've never managed to finish Sophie's World due to the philosophy. So philosophy and I aren't exactly the best of buds.
Which would explain why I'm not doing cartwheels over this one. I did like the story, but it made me feel a bit dense at times. Okay, a lot dense. And while I especially enjoyed Renee's sections, Paloma never engaged me. Also, I definitely didn't see the ending coming, that's for sure.
So, if you like philosophy and want a taste of French literature, I'd definitely pick this one up. If the idea of phenomenology and Kant bores you to tears, then I'd just move along.