So far I am doing smashingly well with my (one and only) New Year's Resolution: to post about a book in my book blog before I begin the next one! I bought "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery with my Christmas gift card last Wednesday, and finished it New Year's Day, so I'm counting it as the first book for 2010.
I had heard about this book through Cornflower's Book Blog (link on my sidebar). From her I learned that readers are very divided about this book, either loving it or hating it. Those who didn't care for it had two major complaints: that the main characters were snobbish, elitist and unlikable, and that the book itself was too intellectual, too philosophical, boring even.
Although I am a smart, quite well-educated person, I do not consider myself an intellectual, and am, in fact, put off by the yammering of self-important intellectuals. (I think of a girl at school named Blatherwick whom my friends and I called Blatheralot). I was a bit intimidated too: afraid to buy the book and let myself in for philosophical treatises too deep for me. But the glowing descriptions of those who liked the book tipped the balance. And "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" turned out to be one of the best books I have read in a long time. I know I will be reading it again and again.
The two major characters are Renee Michel, the apparently sterotypical concierce of a Parisian apartment building, and 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who lives in the building with her family. Both are stunningly intelligent but - for reasons that will ultimately revealed - each chooses to hide her intellectual light under a bushel basket of anonymity.
Renee, a 54-year-old widow, is known only as Mme. Michel to the tenants. They have no idea that behind closed doors Madame is vastly unlike her public persona of the dowdy, grumpy concierge. Rather than sitting glued to mind-numbing television, Renee, an autodidact, listens to classical music, reads philosophy and watches DVDs of Japanese films.
Precocious Paloma is world-weary and disillusioned. Her parents, sister, schoolmates and teachers have no idea of the depths of her still waters. Perhaps too well read and too informed for her tender age, Paloma has come to the conclusion that life is not worth living. She plans to commit suicide and burn down the apartment building on her upcoming 13th birthday.
The arrival of a new tenant in the building - the extremely perceptive Japanese businessman and aesthete Kakuro Ozu - is the catalyst that brings Paloma and Renee together, lifts Renee out of her self-spun cocoon and gives Paloma an abiding reason to live.
Rather than finding them snobbish and offputting, I loved Renee and Paloma immediately. Perhaps it's because I was and am still in many ways a misfit that I identified with them so. I found the philosophical discussions to be intriguing and sailed through them fairly well, finding only Chapter 2 under "Paloma" a bit daunting. But to balance out that chapter is Chapter 11 under "Summer Rain" that begins "What is the purpose of art?" and ends with this sublime sentence: "For art is emotion without desire."
The language of "Hedgehog" is glorious throughout. Through the character of Paloma, Barbery writes, "Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language." For those who recognize it, the enchantment and beauty of language are on every page of "Hedgehog". For example, this paragraph which ends a description of a summer rain:
"Just as teardrops, when they are large and round and compassionate, can leave a long strand washed clean of discord, the summer rain as it washes away the motionless dust can bring to a person's soul something like endless breathing."
"In the split second when I saw the stem and the bud drop to the counter I intuited the essence of beauty....Because beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It's the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death."
If you're wondering about the title, it's Paloma's description of Renee: "Mme. Michele has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered with quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."