Review - The Elegance of the Hedgehog

It is 1.40 a.m. and I've not long finished reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Gallic). When I read about this book last week I knew I had to go out and buy it - even though it's still only in hardback. And I can see why it has become a best-seller in France. It is quirky and generally I like quirky. But I'm also in two minds about it.

It's the parallel stories of Renee, the fifty-four-year-old working-class concierge of luxury apartments at 7, rue de grenelle, and Paloma, the twelve-year-old-daughter who lives there with her sister and parents. I won't outline the story for you, read that here, but Renee and Paloma, whilst not knowing each other, are soul mates in their shared outlooks. They are both auto-didacts, and share that tortured world-weariness that is scathing of everyone who doesn't share what they think is the Truth of the world, seeing most others as stuck to the masks they try desperately hard to hang onto for fear of connecting with the existential struggle. What comes under attack is the western world - over-fed, over-indulged, with too many spoilt little rich kids going round trying to be 'street' and the housewife's dependence on anti-depressants and the middle-class past-time of psychoanalysis. And the antidote, as they see it, is Japan, brought to life when the Japanese character, Kakuro, moves into the apartment which had once belonged to a famous food critic (bloated and verbose - which is read as being symptomatic of western culture). There's also the constant philosophical musings such as Renee's refutation of Husserl's Phenomenology, much of which I enjoyed. However, I do think that, whilst Barbery herself is (was as she's now moved to Japan to live!) a Professor of Philosopy, was relayed in an, at times, infantile or clumsy way - or perhaps it was the way in which Renee relayed them to us in an at times sanctimonious way. I also enjoyed the class-struggle brought to life and which is a desperately under written issue in contemporary literature when it should be much more of a feature considering that it is still very much there, or perhaps the fact that it isn't is more indicative of the fact that novel writing is still predominantly a middle-class or faux bohemian (as Poloma's sister is described in the NY Times review) past-time. What I felt frustrated with, though, was Renee's life-long insistence on keeping up her own appearances and not rocking the boat. Not wanting anyone except Manuela, her Portugese friend who is also a cleaner in the same building, to know how clever she is I found annoying.

As it reached the end I was thinking, oh no, please no, don't go for that conventional ending which threatened, in my mind, to turn everything Renee stood for on its head - redeemed by love and all that - but, I'm happier to say that she didn't. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a light, yet clever read and is a refreshing change to a lot of other mass-market fiction currently out there.

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