Tuesday, April 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Published 2008 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.

One of the big topics in the book world at the end of 2008 was the dearth of translated literature in America; plenty of English-language literature gets translated for the rest of the world, but precious little of what gets published in other languages makes it to us- a shame. Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel literature committee, made a splash, and caused a lot of controversy, when he suggested that American insularity was having a deleterious effect on American literature. In large part due to the this shortfall of European literature translated into English, American writers, he argued, were isolated from many of the trends and conversations going on elsewhere in the world, making American literature less rich and interesting.

Now, whether or not you agree with Engdahl's evaluation of American literature, the small quantity of available translated literature isn't really open to dispute. So when The Elegance of the Hedgehog came out in English last year, I was excited to familiarize myself with this celebrated novel that's sold more than a million copies in France. And if you've been hedging on whether or not to read it yourself, let me just say that you're in for a treat.

The action of the book takes place nearly entirely within the confines of an exclusive apartment building in Paris. The building's tenants- wealthy Parisians, many of whom have lived in these apartments for years if not generations- form the background. The foreground is occupied by Paloma, a precocious, hyperintelligent 12 year old who writes her "Profound Thoughts" in a diary, and Renee, the concierge, who is poor but very intelligent and a bit of an autodidact who hides her worldliness behind a thick veneer of averageness. Paloma and Renee find a mutual friend in the form of Monsieur Ozu, a mysterious, wealthy Japanese man who moves into the building.

Action, though, isn't really the point. The book is a character study of these three individuals, so different on the surface but so alike in their efforts to understand the world and other people. Paloma relentlessly analyzes herself, her family (indifferent bourgeois parents, vacant teenage sister) and yet even though she is obviously very intelligent she's still a little girl. Even her vow to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday comes across as like childish overdramatics- oh, how sorry they'll all be, etc. But herein lies her charm- her combination of analysis and innocence. Renee reads Tolstoy and philosophy, but knows that in class-obsessed Paris the tenants would never believe her to be capable of anything more than servitude; yet, she takes a certain pleasure in the security of her position and when she develops a friendship with Monsieur Ozu, who seems to see something more in her, she loses her balance a little, and must surrender her disguise.

But it's a sweet kind of surrender. The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes as its theme (one of its themes) the sweetness under the surface- Renee's intelligence and sincerity, Paloma's innocence and Monsieur Ozu's kindness and generosity of spirit. It's a talky book, heavy on interior monologues and tangents- and like I said, not a lot actually happens- but stick with these lovely characters and you'll be swept along and moved and touched. It ends too sadly to be a sunshine sort of book but you'll be happy to have read it nonetheless. It's a very special, very rare sort of book that will make you smile through your tears and right away you'll want to savor it all over again. Let's hope more great books like this one make their way over to us soon.

Here's my review of the 2011 movie, The Hedgehog.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

17 comments:

comic laconic said...

I found this book moving in a way that I had not felt since reading "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Spot on review.

Nymeth said...

wow! Excellent review, Marie. I want to read this more than ever now.

Sandra said...

Great review. I enjoyed this book very much too. I first noticed it last autumn on Dewey's blog, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, just before she died. I'm glad you recommend it too.

classicvasilly said...

Great review! I read this book a couple months ago I couldn't find the words to right a review. You've done a great job!

Vasilly

charley said...

Nice review. I've had this book on my list for a while, and I hope to get to it sooner rather than later.

Literary Feline said...

This does sound good, Marie! I wasn't familiar with the book before reading your review, I'm afraid. I look forward to reading this one someday.

Molly said...

This is one of the first books that I purchased because of a blog recommendation and I absolutely LOVED it!!

Great review!

candyschultz said...

I agree with Engdahl and this book sounds enchanting. Thanks.

bermudaonion said...

Your review is fantastic! I want to read the book now.

Laura said...

I'm reading this book right now and am about halfway through it. I agree, it's wonderful!

Lenore said...

Ok, now I must read this! And yes, totally agree that we need more translated works in the US.

naida said...

it sounds very good!
great review :)
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

Zibilee said...

I have heard excellent things about this book and have been really wanting to read it. Awesome review!

Dave said...

As a fellow Francophile, I've put this on my TBR list. It's much more appealing than The Kindly Ones, the Nazi saga that was recently translated from French.

Anna said...

This sounds like an interesting book. I hadn't heard of it before your review, but you convinced me to keep my eyes open for it. I think the translation issue is interesting, as I just posted a review this week of Memory by Philippe Grimbert, which also was translated from French.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Joanne Dreyer said...

What was Renee's sin?

bookbirddog said...

I saw this book as social satire and the characters only the vehicles for the author's thoughts, social criticism, philosophies, etc. However, there is a plot, and a nice one, I agree - the relationship between the three odd friends.