Of course, it's been sitting on my shelf for years. I recently finished up a string of relative light weight semi-stinkers and figured a translated French book about philosophy and god-knows-what-else could be just what I needed to cleanse the palate. If nothing else, it would be quick, I felt pretty sure, and I hoped for little more than that.
Wow, did I misjudge this one.
First of all, let me say a word about the writing. It was sublime. And because this is a translated text, I think I have to give serious credit to the translator, Alison Anderson. Lots of times when you read translated books, you stumble across expressions, idioms and even simple word choices that break into the flow of your reading because they seem out of place. Lots of times those are foreign expressions/words which don't translate well. The translator does the best that he/she can. I found none of that here. Maybe it's because Anderson is a writer herself. Maybe she took some liberties. I don't know. Regardless of how much freedom and creativity she infused into the English text, it could not have been what it is today without Barbery's original French text, which had to be (as I've said) sublime to begin with. What a pleasure to read.
The characters were just as rich. Reneé and Paloma, the two leads, provide the foreground, behind which a subtle arrangement of players create a layered background (Oza the new tenant, Manuela Reneé's friend, Paloma's bourgeois family). The story unfolds delicately. Told in alternating chapters between Reneé's anti-class snobbery and Paloma's adolescent ignorance-cum-loftiness, we see the world around 7 Rue de Grenelle in masked, unreliable tones: through Reneé's refusal to believe that anybody could see a common concierge as anything but a working class dullard and Paloma's belief that she has seen enough in her 13 years years to know, unequivocally, that there is no beauty in the world.
Through these two tainted perspectives, we learn about our dual protagonists, their lives, their loves, their thoughts. This gives Barbery plenty of time to wax rhapsodic on any number of topics from philosophy to modern cinema, and it's often in these asides that we, the reader, get caught up in her beautiful writing and forget there is a story going on in the background.
But there *is* a story going on, and that's what makes this book better than so many alternatives. It's easy to find beautiful writing without a good story. It's easy to find a good story without beautiful writing. It's very uncommon to find the two combined so nicely. Barbery blends them together masterfully.
A note about the ending, which I will state as spoiler-free as possible.
Others have commented upon the ending, mostly favorably, albeit with an occasional ode to a box of tissues. In my opinion, it ended perfectly. Anton Chekov famously said that if you hang a rifle on the wall in the first chapter, then in the second or third chapter it must go off. Otherwise why put it there in the first place? Considering Paloma's 13th birthday ultimatum, somebody had to fire that rifle. Sad as I was to see Reneé take up that mantel, the larger story continues on (in my mind) even after the last page is done, left as we are with these parting words from Paloma:
"Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that's it, an always within never. Don't worry Renée… from now on, for you, I'll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world."
lovingthelot, October 26, 2014 (view all comments by lovingthelot)
There is much more going on behind the door of the concierge, but then aren't concierges rather invisible unless you need them.But everyone in the building also have their secret lives. There is a dying food critic upstairs, a suicidal teenager and a Japanese man who is the one person who really sees them and changes their lives paths. Heartbreaking but also heart warming. This is one of my favorite reads of all times. This may initially seem a woman's read but I was in Powells and saw a man clutch it to his heart with tears in his eyes saying, "It was just so wonderful." You will want to read it again and again.
Rose E Dahl, October 21, 2014 (view all comments by Rose E Dahl)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was a delight to breeze through, but I would gladly pick it up again for a more methodical read in order to fully absorb and appreciate the intellectual references, subtle humor, intricate language, and heartbreaking character development. Sequel, please?
Karen Kay, August 28, 2013 (view all comments by Karen Kay)
This was one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time. A thoughtful balance of humor and wit, sobering realism, and provocative social commentary presented by two seemingly different, yet philosophically similar perspectives of a 54 year old widowed concierge and a 12 year old daughter of a well-to-do family who live in same the building. This book's well written, highly intelligent prose follows a leisurely pace with a gentle charm that engages the heart along with the mind.
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Europa Editions -
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a study in the dichotomy of the hidden inner self versus outer perceptions. Paloma and René are each careful to build a facade that hides their true nature from the world. Until a new tenant moves into their building, this plan has worked well — but no longer. What happens when you meet someone who can see who you really are? Littered with dozens of literary, art, and music references, this quiet novel is a treat for lovers of culture. Beautifully written, poignant, and so very bittersweet.
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the debut in English of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery. Renee Michel, 54 and widowed, is the stolid concierge in an elegant Paris hotel particulier. Though 'short, ugly, and plump,' Renee has, as she says, 'always been poor,' but she has a secret: she's a ferocious autodidact who's better versed in literature and the arts than any of the building's snobby residents. Meanwhile, 'supersmart' 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who switches off narration with Renee, lives in the building with her wealthy, liberal family. Having grasped life's futility early on, Paloma plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The arrival of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who befriends both the young pessimist and the concierge alike, sets up their possible transformations. By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day"
by Sheila Ashdown, Powells.com,
"Renee and Paloma are brought together by their mutual fascination with the building's new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, who sees through their carefully constructed identities — which he does simply by refusing to believe that a concierge and a child are second-class citizens. Between the three of them, their appreciation for the whole of art — literature, painting, film, even fine food — allows them to transcend the walls of class, race, age, and gender." (read the entire Powells.com review)
by Kirkus Reviews,
"With its refined taste and political perspective, this is an elegant, light-spirited and very European adult fable."
by Chicago Sun-Times,
"[A] quiet, graceful book....[I]t leaps to soaring heights — movingly and beautifully....The strength of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Barbery's ability to create characters that come alive with each thought, gesture and literary reference."
by Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review,
"Even when the novel is most essayistic, the narrators' kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson's fluent translation) propel us ahead."
by Rocky Mountain News,
"The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those novels that hangs around in your head for quite a while after you've put it down. An enjoyable read."
"The plot thins at moments and is supplanted with philosophical discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor, leaving the reader enlightened on Kant but disappointed with the story at hand."
In this enthralling international bestseller, two girls live inconspicuous lives in the center of an elegant Paris apartment building. It is only when a stranger moves into their building — and sees through the girls' disguises — that Paloma and Renee discover their kindred spirits.
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.