Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Yesterday I watched the film Roman Holiday for the first time. Yesterday I updated my facebook status to "Claire fell in love with Roman Holiday and had her heart broken in the end". Yesterday (well, last night) I finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and had my heart torn out in the end. Yesterday was not a good day for my heart; today it feels battered and bruised.

This is the synopsis of the book: Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society's expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this façade lies the real Renée: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.

This is a key quote (and one of my favourites): "Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in 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."

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not quite what I was expecting: it is deeply philisophical; it has its literary prentensions (its style one I liked); it is charming; it is surprising; it is joyful; it was one of those things of beauty you find in a bleak world; it is a book that will remain on my wishlist as I desire my own copy, instead of a library one; it is a book I highly recommend as it is original and a welcome read.

I would like to point something out about the synopsis (from the book dustjacket): it is not the unexpected death of one of the neighbours that changes the lives of Renée and Paloma irrevocably but the introduction of Kakuro Ozu (who moves into the apartment of the dead neighbour) into their world. Inadvertently, the death of the neighbour affects the lives of the concierge and the suicidal girl. Anyway, I wanted to make the distinction as Kakuro and the joy he brings with him are crucial to the plot.

Read this book. Fleurfisher wrote a review that prompted me to read it here.

There are many disparate things that made me like this book that defy description; suffice to say that it was one of those books read at the right time. I like when there is a place I know in the book, rendering it more realistic to me (specifics mentioned below). I enjoy reading books in translation, without being fully conscious that I am. I was conveniently reading a Japanese book in translation at the same time, convenient because of the influence of Japanese culture on this book. I love when my reading at a particular times comes together ... almost as if it was divined.

"After the rigmarole with the umbrella stand, we went to eat some cakes and drink hot chocolate at Angelina's, a tea room on the Rue de Rivoli ... It's symbolic. When you go to have tea chez Angelina, you are in France, in a world that is wealthy, hierarchical, rational, Cartesian, policed,"

I finish with reference to the above quote because it made me happy to read it as I have sat in Angelina's in Paris drinking hot chocolate; reading the pages set there made me nostalgic for my romantic visit to Paris a few years ago and I want to revisit. I live much closer to Paris now so perhaps I will soon.


Nymeth said...

I WILL read it! It sounds beautiful and tender and like something I would really love.

And speaking of Japanese culture, you won my The Fox Woman giveaway. E-mail me your address and I'll send it your away as soon as I can :)

claire said...

Interestingly, this book's pretentiousness, while very evident, didn't bother me at all. In fact, I loved it (the way you did). I agree with you, it wasn't the death but Ozu. And also, I really love Roman Holiday. :)

Paperback Reader said...

Nymeth, it is beautiful and tender.

I am so excited about The Fox Woman! Thank you.

Claire, I am also excited because I looked Muriel Barbery up to see if she had written any more books and I discovered that one if due out in August or September and it is about Pierre Arthens (the neighbour and food critic) in the lead up to his death! It is entitled The Gourmet in the UK and Gourmet Rhapsody in North America (I much prefer your cover art) and is about his search for the perfect last meal, one he has eaten before and which he tries to re-create.

Paperback Reader said...

I loved Roman Holiday, despite finding it heartbreaking.

I adore Audrey Hepburn and have been watching a number of her movies and Cary Grant's.

claire said...

Oh wow, I didn't know that, thanks! I'll definitely keep an eye out for that new Barbery.

Roman Holiday was my first Hepburn, so it's quite memorable. :)

Mel said...

Have you ever loved a book so much you kissed it when you had completed it? This is how I feel about "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". Most of the negative comments you will find are on its supposed stereo typing of Japanese culture. To me this totally misses much of the point of the book. I have tried to talk a a bit about this at

Mel said...

Have you ever loved a book so much you kissed it when you had completed it? This is how I feel about "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". Most of the negative comments you will find are on its supposed stereo typing of Japanese culture. To me this totally misses much of the point of the book. I have tried to talk a a bit about this at

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Mel, thanks for commenting! If there was ever a book worth kissing then this would be it. I will need to read your thoughts but, as it is, I agree that the criticism is missing the point. I am looking forward to reading 'Gourmet' when it is released soon.

Literary Kitty said...

I also felt that this book wasn't quite what I was a expecting. The pretentiousness did grate on me a little bit but in the end I thought it probably had more merits than flaws.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Literary Kitty, thank you for commenting. The pretentiousness grated on my nerves a little too but overall it definitely won me over; I thought it was original and wise and beautiful.