Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

Ah those Europa editions with their thick paper, lovely covers, generally unpronounceable author names and french flaps! They do seduce me into a quick purchase on a regular basis. I can always count on them for something different. Authors and/or plots that are off center, exotic in their other worldliness.

My latest Europa book was hardly a 'find'. It's been around for a couple years and has gotten a lot of good press. It's The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Mariel Barbery. What took me so long? Goodness knows. Not disinterest certainly. Just plain old inertia probably.

The two main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog epitomize the books' title. Renee is the troll like concierge of the pricey apartment house/condo building in Paris where the novel is set. She has successfully created a demeanor and the habits of a typical French concierge. Her tenants view her as crabby, a bit slovenly, slow, forever smelling of cabbage and listening to the radio. Paloma is a very teenager-y twelve year old daughter of a bourgeois family who lives in Paloma's apartment building. She is tired of the lies of convention, the dishonesty of adult life and has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. Renee and Paloma each cultivate a prickly, unappealing exterior to mask what is most important to each: beauty and truth.

 I have read enough reviews of Elegance to know that I am supposed to reference the philosophers whose ideas Barbery uses in the novel but I'm a philistine so that isn't going to happen. The only philosophies that I am familiar with come out of fortune cookies or on Salad tea. However my ignorance did not stymie my great delight in reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog strictly as a novel. The plot is a touching twist on Cinderella. Renee and Paloma are provocative, endearing heroines, this Paris is quite interesting and the cutaway view of the apartment building's lives is tantalizing.

Barbery alternates the chapters between the confessions of Renee and Paloma. Each of them ruminates at length about class hierarchy, art, motivations, their building mates and society in general and yet this novel of ideas is something of a page turner. Their tone is equal parts disdainful, pitying and gossipy and that might be where the page turner aspects of the novel comes from. Who doesn't like passing judgment on their neighbors?

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