Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: L’Élégance du hérisson


My experience with Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the exact opposite of what I expected. This may be the first review I’ve written that has a more negative than subjective tone, but I’m just gonna be honest. Maybe it’s because I had high expectations or maybe it was really that boring, but I’m gonna say it’s a combination of the two.

First of all, this book has an awesomely creative premise. The story focuses on two unique individuals that live in the same upscale Paris apartment building. We have Renée Marcel, the 50-something concierge that secretly enjoys art, culture, and literature, but is usually overlooked. Then there is Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of a wealthy family. Paloma is extraordinarily intelligent but has decided that life is a fish bowl. There’s nothing to look forward to in adulthood, so she has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.
So this seems like a great setup for a story, yes? Well, about 250 pages in, you might finally be satisfied with the direction the story is going. The book is structured with alternating chapters written by Renée and Paloma, but the first 200+ pages were just intellectual garble to me. This is how the characters are introduced to the reader, but we have to listen to internal monologue after internal monologue about this or that philosopher/artist/musician. It felt like a philosophical discourse for which I hadn’t done the reading. It takes more than these 200 pages for the two characters to actually meet and interact—an event I would have expected and liked to happen much earlier in the novel.
When people call this novel brilliant, I think they must be referring to the last 100 pages, because that’s where the story I expected seems to begin. Yes, I understand the point of this book. Two individuals who are overlooked, underestimated, and deal with the loneliness that comes with being unique. The relationship they have with each other is gratifying and cultivated. They bring out the best of each other; they’re kindred spirits of sort (to pull out Anne of Green Gables reference). But I just felt like I was missing something. I was never fully engrossed with the characters, though I did enjoy the last part of the book.
I think this deserves a re-read on my part. And please, do read it and give me your opinion. It’s been a NYTimes bestseller and all of France seems to love it, so it there must be something good about it.


Salvatore said…

Sounds like a 'typical' French read. Felt the same way about 'Vie Francaise', which was getting a lot of international acclaim a couple of years ago and it ended up being a dud. Not really sure what all the hoopla is.

I probably would read this if it were shorter, since I like ruminations in minor chords. But since it's over 250, looks like it might take some time before I get to it.

softdrink said…

I loathed the philosophy sections, but that's because philosophy and I just don't get along. But I did enjoy the concept of the story…and the unexpected ending. Well, enjoy might not be the best word…