To Go: 67
31. The Dressmaker — Kate Alcott
32. Spin — Catherine McKenzie
33. The Elegance of the Hedgehog — Muriel Barbery
Finished reading: June 16, 2013
I came across The Elegance of the Hedgehog in an unusual way. You may recall, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, that near the end of last year I read Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. Besides being a beautiful and touching memoir, it was also a wonderful novel about books, and gave me plenty of novels to put on my to-read list. The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of the books Schwalbe and his mother read together, but didn’t really pique my interest until I saw it in Chapters during my post-Christmas book binge. I picked it up, decided to buy it, and was told by my sister shortly afterwards that: “You always pick the books with the weirdest names.”
Guilty as charged.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog intertwines the lives of three inhabitants of a posh Parisian apartment building: Renee, a dumpy concierge who hides her autodidactic intellect behind a bland facade; Paloma, a brilliant pre-teen with an existential bent and a plan to commit suicide on her 13th birthday; and Kakuro Ozu, the building’s new, mysterious Japanese tenant. When Kakuro unexpectedly reaches out to both Paloma and Renee, sensing that neither are who they appear to be, his friendship has a profound affect on both women.
Translated from French, Hedgehog is also a meditation on beauty, art, literature, and philosophy. While this has its place in a novel about a woman who learns everything by reading it herself, and a suicidal girl determined to find little moments in life that are beautiful, it went on far too long, and reading Hedgehog began to feel like a slow death.
It couldn’t have been clearer that Barbery was trying to elevate her novel to an intellectual plane far above the common reader, but it didn’t feel smart: it felt like she was trying too hard. The first two thirds of Hedgehog are basically screaming “Look at me! Look at how many obscure references I can make! Look at how much I know! Let me rub it in your face!”
Fortunately the entrance of Kakuro Ozu—far too late in the narrative, might I add—shook up the book’s pretentious pandering, and infused Hedgehog with a new life. When Barbery gave her three characters a chance to engage with each other, The Elegance of the Hedgehog became a much more likeable, and even poignant, read. Renee, Paloma, and Kakuro were all interesting, heartbreakingly relatable characters, but if you were a reader who couldn’t slog through Barbery’s relentless reference-dropping, you’d never know it.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was, underneath the suffocating pretension, a bittersweet story about a friendship that was powerful enough to transform three lives. It’s dramatic ending was a shock to the system that left me aching for the characters I had quickly come to love. If Barbery had dedicated more of her novel to the relationships between Renee, Paloma, and Kakuro, it would have been an infinitely stronger story overall.
Next book: The Beast itself, Anna Karenina.
P.S.: I watched the movie adaptation, Le Herisson, and it was brilliant. Because of the nature of the medium, Le Herisson had to cut out the philosophical discussions and get right to the heart of the story, and it was all the more touching for it. Even if you have to watch it with the subtitles on, I’d recommend a screening.