Tuesday, 28 September 2010
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary
I picked up The Elegance of the Hedgehog after having read so many rave reviews on it in different blogs and sites. I’m normally a bit wary of books that tend to capture the masses because what makes it onto the best seller list isn’t always to my taste. However, it sounded intriguing so I went ahead and got it. Unfortunately, I’m afraid this book did not live up to its reputation, at least not for me.
Renée Michel is a concierge in a posh apartment building in Paris where the young girl Paloma Josse lives. Neither person is what they seem to be. Renée is an autodidact who has taught herself much which a normal concierge wouldn’t normally even be interested in. Paloma is a highly intelligent child who is too old for her age. Both of them hide their intelligence so they can melt into the crowd and remain anonymous spectators who watch the world around them going by as if the rest of the people were ants in a farm who have no idea what their purpose in life is. Paloma decides that there is no point in living such a life, so she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Before she does this, she takes it upon herself to write down as many meaningful things as possible, through which the reader realizes that Paloma suspects Renée’s deception. Renée also begins to realize that Paloma is more than a vapid child and becomes interested in her.
The whole premise is interesting and the characters are well drawn, thus I hoped for more out of the book. However, two things got in the way of making this a really great work. The first was the attitude of the child. She was arrogant and annoying and I spent much of the time wanting to slap her. Yes, she was just a child and it was a phase, but I could have lived without this being the centre of attention for so long. The second is that it read a bit like a philosophy primer. It was as if I were back at uni in a philosophy 101 course going through the basics instead of reading about the relationship between and old woman and a girl. The two things did not mesh well together and it disrupted the rhythm of the story; it was a bit like talking as you bump down stone steps while on a cart. Had the story been smoother, the book would have been fantastic. As it was, I spent the first two-thirds wanting to slap the child and the last third regretting that the author hadn’t arrived at that point sooner.
All in all, I give the first half 2/5 and the last half 4/5, so a decisive 3/5.