25 February 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog; Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every now and then my mother will ask if I've read this book or that, usually in connection with her monthly book group. This book she not only asked about, she mailed me her copy on loan - which meant that for some reason, it really resonated with her and she wanted me to read it now.

While I'm not sure what grabbed her, I can understand her eagerness to have me read it. Our two main characters were charming additions to my life and I've picked up a Japanese director to check out on Netflix. The first, a middle-aged widow serving as concierge to a building of seven households is, at first glance, typical of her class: eating cassoulet, shuffling in slippers, slightly cranky when asked to do something, watching endless hours of television, taking care of her cat. But look under the surface and see that the tv is on in another room, not the one she spends most of her time in... her cat is named after Tolstoy... she reads books on philosophy and watches 1950s Japanese films by Yasujiro Ozu. A semi-traitor to her profession, she's an autodidact who mentally sneers at the building's occupants as being engrossed in the petty and predictable, unaware of the finer things in life.

Our second main character is only twelve, but she's one of those precocious, pretentious twelves who are so above us mere mortals in intelligence, appreciation of the beautiful, philosophical thinking and sensitivity. Sadly, Paloma lives in a family of consumerism, loud music and banal discussion; her escape is via her Journal of the Movement of the World/Journal of Profound Thoughts. And she's planning to commit suicide by (I think) smoke inhalation after she sets fire to her family's apartment. Into their world comes Kakuru Ozu, a distant relative of Yasujiro's, a man of elegance, taste and perception: he befriends both, giving both a reason to live outside their narrow, hidden lives.

The title comes from Paloma's observations about Mme. Michel, that she is like a hedgehog, with her prickly spines hiding an elegant, graceful interior life.

Highly recommended! Why a four, not a five? This is a book in translation, and occasionally there were phrases or words (the cat eats Whiskas) that felt a bit jarringly out of place. Call me picky, but I would have preferred less colloquial phrasing or French brand names.

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