Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review from Col Reads: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

How quickly do we form our impressions of others? How dependent are those impressions on the way someone appears? What determines whether or not we simply interact with another person, or truly form a connection with them? It is when Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog explores these deeply human questions that the novel is wonderfully successful.

Madame Renée Michel works as a concierge for an upscale condominium in one of Paris’ most elegant neighborhoods, and occupies a small apartment in the building. The building’s other residents include the upper crust of French society: food critics, members of Parliament, government ministers. To the building residents, the widowed Madame Michel appears in every way a model concierge: aging, ugly, unfashionable, and a bit dim. But in reality, Madame Michel is an autodidact, voraciously reading everything she can get her hands on. She spends her time off seeking out great books and great art. But she conceals her erudite nature from the resident of 7, rue de Grenelle, believing that her job is safer if the elites she works for believe she is not trying to reach beyond her social class.

But a few people in the building see through Madame Michel’s ruse. Portuguese housemaid Manuela, Renée’s one true friend, knows that beneath her crusty exterior Renée is a person of great passion – even if she doesn’t guess the depths of her friend’s thirst for knowledge. The newest resident in the building, wealthy Japanese businessman Kakuro, recognizes a line from Tolstoy that Madame Michel carelessly inserts into a conversation. And Paloma, the all-seeing 12-year-old daughter of high-minded French socialists who make time for every cause save their family, notices the intelligence in Madame Michel’s eyes, and senses a kindred spirit. Madame Michel’s interactions with these individuals, and the lessons we can draw from them, are truly surprising and inspiring. It is significant that all of Madame Michel’s friends come from outside of French culture, including Paloma, the only French member of the bunch, who does her best to place herself outside of what she sees as a hypocritical order. This is, no doubt, a part of Barbery’s treatise on the French social system, which makes up a significant portion of the book.

And that, unfortunately, is where the book fell down for me. Barbery was trained as a philosopher, and a great deal of the book comprises essays on the nature of being, moving and knowing, as experienced by the characters of Madame Michel and Paloma Josse. Some of these pieces are quite interesting, such as her discussion of Dutch still lives. But in other parts of the book she opines on topics like phenomenology and aesthetics for chapters at a time, without drawing any interesting conclusions. As with Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Afternoon Philosophy Club series, at those times I had the distinct feeling I was being schooled, rather than entertained. Also, I’m no expert in French sociology, nor am I a Marxist scholar, but I am pretty sure there are worse examples of classism on the planet than modern day France – even if there is a lingering elitism that the fifth Republic has yet to address.

Still, there is so much to like about this book. There are some laughs and some extraordinarily tender moments. I will probably never look at a camellia the same way again after reading this book, and that’s a powerful thing. I particularly loved the incident when Madame Michel and Monsieur Ozu are leaving for dinner, and the wealthy ladies of the building have no idea that the woman on their new friend’s arm is their concierge: they simply don’t see it, because in their world it simply can’t happen. Barbery captured the moment perfectly.

I hated the ending of the novel – no quibbling about that – but it didn’t ruin the book for me. (It did cross my mind after reading it that I wouldn’t enjoy having dinner with the author, but that was just an idle thought, and not an issue I’m likely to face any time soon. However, it should signal how very much I thought the ending was somehow mean-spirited). Lovers of literary fiction, translated fiction and philosophy should definitely have this book on their TBR lists – although I imagine many of them have read it already, considering the extraordinary success of the novel around the world.

This is my third book for the Europa Challenge 2011. My last review, of Amara Lakhous’ Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio will appear here on the Europa Editions Challenge site this week – but I’ll hold off posting it on Col Reads until my buddy Jess at Desperado Penguin is ready with her review. I am already looking forward to the 2012 Europa Editions Challenge. Thanks so much to Marie at The Boston Bibliophile for hosting!