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Over/Under-Rated: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This week, we take a look at a French novel (translated, of course–my French begins and ends with voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir), which has managed to straddle “bestseller-dom” and “intellectually stimulating reads-ville.” Of course, this mixing does not please the bookish overlords, who have compared the novel to a piece of Ikea furniture–”popular, but not likely to be passed down the generations”–and harrumphed that it’s merely an “accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer.” To which I reply: haters to the left.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog ““ Muriel Barbery (#35 on NYT Paperback Trade Fiction List)

Hedgehog is narrated by two characters: The most prominent is Renée, a 54-year-old concierge at a fancy apartment building in Paris, who describes herself thusly: “I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit certain early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth.” Renee’s well-guarded secret is that she is a brilliant, widely read autodidact who loves Tolstoy, Hegel, the opera and fine cuisine.

The second narrator is 12-year-old Paloma, who lives with her parents and insufferably bohemian older sister in one of the luxury apartments. Paloma is like the mini-version of depressed Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted. She is just so over it, writing ” “˜Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and realize it’s not true, it’s too late.” Paloma has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday and “set fire to the apartment (with the barbeque lighter).” Kudos to Barbery for writing a very believable pre-teen girl–only a 12-year-old would think they could safely “evacuate the cats” and burn down one specific part of an apartment building.

Renee’s position at the bottom of the social totem pole highlights the rigidity of the French class structure, which couldn’t be more opposite from the American concepts of nouveau riche and the striving middle class. If this novel were set in a luxury condo building in New York City, I would expect Renee to be envious of her employers, to perhaps get a belated college degree, to somehow haul herself up by her own proverbial bootstraps and prove that she is “one of them,” an elite. But upward mobility is never even considered by Renee, who instead must figure out how to be happy with books and films and friends.

The story is told through Renee’s thoughts and Paloma’s journal entries, which reveal remarkably similar outlooks and twin interests in Japanese culture. The introduction of Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu, who moves into the apartment building, wooing Renee and befriending Paloma, is a catalyst for most of the events that take place in an otherwise fairly sedate book.

While the criticisms of Hedgehog are mostly aimed at the “philosophy-lite” that its narrators peddle, I thought Barbery did a wonderful job of making philosophical concepts like phenomenology relevant and interesting within the framework of a narrative. That’s no easy feat–just ask the guy that wrote Sophie’s World, the only teacher-assigned book I ever completely gave up on. No, this book is not the equivalent of a college-level Philosophy course, nor should it be held to that standard–philosophical concepts only factor into the novel because they are near and dear to Renee and, to a lesser extent, Paloma.

My verdict: read this if you like novels that include lots of reference to books and movies, want some insight into France’s class structure, and can stand just the tiniest bit of grandstanding on the part of narrators. I think this book is more like a worn pleather sofa than an Ikea piece–it’s comfortable, it’s not pretending to be anything more than it is, and if you think you’re too good for it–go sit somewhere else.

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