Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Coincidence sometimes puts books in my hands that I would not read otherwise. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery came to me that way. When visiting in NYC, Ellen said she had read and liked this book -- she doesn't proclaim it, but I think she's a covert Francophile. The next day at my favorite thrift shop I found it on the shelf. I would not have purchased a book with an adolescent on the cover because it suggests to me that it's going to be a coming of age story in the insipid way I detest, "They say to write what you know and I'm only 20 and all I know is the pain of growing up." No, not at all, this is told by a very grown up and well educated writer although the two women in it are stuck, like adolescents critical of everything their parents do, in their too aware and painfully sharp disgust with the bourgeoisie who inhabit the elegant apartment building where Renee is the concierge and Paloma a sulky 12 year old rich kid.

Renee works hard to be the stereotypical concierge, all but invisible to the building's denizens, except to Manuela, a Portuguese cleaning woman. Most of the story is told in Renee's mind, portions, in different type face, are notes toward a philosophical view of life by Paloma who has decided on suicide on her 13th birthday to escape the pretentiousness she's afraid will be her fate. I had difficulty getting involved with both characters for the first third of the book but was pulled along by Barbery's writing which seemed very "French" and, indeed, elegant as the two philosophized and said senseless things such as that hedgehogs are elegant. Eventually both are befriended by an wealthy Japanese who moves into the building and their protective judgmental attitudes are striped away.

It was a double Cinderella story with a twist to the happily ever after ending as if nothing of equal importance could be told after the sooty clothes are shed, in that sense I was disappointed. Growing up is difficult whether you're 12 or 54, but living as a true adult is even more difficult. Not enough books attempt to show how it's done.


Kass said...

Nice book review. The pains of growing up at any age is an interesting theme to look for in books. Marie (mutual blogging friend) and I were discussing this the other day and her view is that a woman's life is a series of losses and how she copes. The children leave, sometimes husbands leave, we lose our youth, etc. I wonder if this is true for both men and women..?

June Calender said...

Losses, Kass? Loss is a state of mind. Yes, we all cease being youthful but I've heard many, many people say they would NEVER wish to be 16 again. Children are supposed to leave but my experience is they become friends who know us as few others do, a wonderful bonus. If husbands leave we gain freedom [although many are financially poorer, true enough]. Later relationships are built on the wisdom of experience. This can be true for both men and women. If we view it all as loss we are buying society's youth-oriented propaganda.