23 February 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Thoughts and Reflections:
I began reading this novel first in early autumn of last year. For whatever reason, the book simply didn’t fit the time, so I shelved it for the moment. I am a firm believer in timing: a great book at the wrong time can simply seem like the worst piece of literature as yet. However, by December I was in a much different state of mind and attempted the novel once again. It was first recommended to me by my book club from when I lived in Inverness. I love the idea of being connect to a friendly but distant group of people through a great novel.
Again, the book was slow to fully captivate me. However, something about it kept me going. I believe it was the use of language, but as I was reading the English translation, I’m not quite sure how true that is (though the language is wonderful). Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t put the book down. I was totally caught and all other academic obligations were put to the side. It was also the best read I could have hoped for on my 7 hour flight to my family at Christmas!
All in all, this is a must read. I have been trying to force a class-mate and fellow avid reader to add this one to her list (with difficulty only because her must-read list is already so long). I enjoyed this novel thoroughly and would call it easily one of my all-time favourites.

The Author:
Muriel Barbery was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1969. She is a French novelist and a professor of philosophy. Her book The Elegance of the Hedgehog is her groundbreaking and most famous work thus far. The novel was named most popular book in France for more than 30 weeks! She is currently living in Japan writing her third novel. Her fascination with Japan and Japanese culture is certainly evident in the novel.

Brief Synopsis:
This book follows the lives of an aging concierge of a posh Parisian apartment building, Renee, and a 12 year old resident, Paloma. It is written in the style of diary entries from each character. Both hold a certain distain and apathy for life, whilst holding true intellectualism and beauty as the true essence of being. Despite similarities, are hardly aware of the existence of the other. Renee masks her intelligence, preferring to play the frumpy and ignorant concierge-widow, whilst Paloma chooses to hide her brilliance and appear stupid. A new resident of the building, Kakuro Ozu is a point of fascination for both characters brings these two characters into awareness of the other’s secret, bringing them together.

Beauty: The reader is exposed to false intellectualism and French popular culture, though the author places beauty far above all other characteristics, thus fostering true intellegence.

Class Consciousness: Barbery seems to create Renee as a mechanism to demolish the steriotype of the ingnorant concierge. Renee is portrayed as leading a far greater existence than the residents of the apartment building whose identity is rooted in wealth and class-oriented, bourgeois prestige.

Things I loved the most about this book:
1) The language: the semantics and word choice, even in translation, were enlightening in themselves and a sincere pleasure to read. The language certainly contributed to the atmosphere of beauty and true intelligence.

2)The characters: the author brought them to life. At the end of the novel, I missed having them as part of my daily. Even now, more than two months later, the pop back into my mind as though I sat with them reading and munching the best chocolates Paris has to offer.

3)The ending. That’s all I can say about that. Shocking, yet strangely beautiful.

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