Monday, August 10, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

Blurb from the book:
We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
I was looking for some recommendations for my book club and had read such glowing reviews of this book that I ordered it to check it out. Before I got a chance to read it my husband snatched it up, read it and absolutely loved it saying it was one of the best books that he read in years. My book club also really enjoyed it when they read it.

It is beautifully written, which is hard to accomplish in translation. Although not plot driven it is a compelling story and I read the entire thing in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down although I would recommend taking your time and enjoying the language. I went back and re-read it more slowly before our book club and it was even more rewarding. I didn’t like either of the main characters at first but as the story unfolds and you get to see beyond their facade I really loved them both. Although the book includes serious themes such as class struggle, philosophy and the search for beauty don’t let that put you off as it is also laugh out loud funny at times and real joy to read.

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