04 February 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)

I should start by saying that this book was not at all what I expected. Although really, all I knew before I picked this up was that it was written from the perspective of a concierge in a Parisian apartment building and it was a bestseller in France. 'Fabulous,' I thought, 'a nice light holiday read, romp in Paris etc etc etc'. What I didn't know was that the concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is very into art, Russian literature, science and philosophy. Whole chapters are devoted to the phenomenology of the spirit, which are very interesting, but not quite the light reading I had hoped for.
From the outside, Renee appears to be a 'typical' daytime TV watching, uncultured concierge, an image which she strives to maintain for reasons which have a lot to do with not alarming the bourgeois residents of her building. It is not until a new resident moves into the building and discovers that Renee's cat is named Leo in homage to her favourite Russian author that the truth slowly comes out.

The book alternates between Renee's story, and the Journal of the Movement of the World of Paloma Josse, a twelve year old girl who plans to kill herself and burn down her parents' apartment on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. Melodramatic much? Paloma's family are bourgeois to the point of being caricatures, and she can think of nothing worse then the future which she sees before her.

The book took a little while to get into, possibly because I'd finally be getting into the Renee story line, only to be interrupted by Paloma musing on the fact that the 'cat is a modern totem'.
I did enjoy reading it, and would have more had the characters not both been so ridiculously resigned about the world. ('How French!' A customer said to me when I made this comment....more like 'How annoying!') If Paloma was in fact as brilliant as she claimed (many many times), why didn't she set her (brilliant) mind on changing the path set out for her? Possibly I am missing the point here. But what does it say that here I am, a few weeks after finishing the book and one of the only things that has stuck in my mind is how annoying one of the characters was? I understood what Renee had to say, I was interested in her views on literature and art, I just wasn't enthralled. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog..I am just a little undecided. And I think writing this review has made me even more so.

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