Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog

My parents have been married for over 40 years and they're still very happy together.  But my mother once confessed to me that she fears she married my father under false pretenses.  It started like this.  When she was a sophomore in college my mother took a train to visit her older brother at seminary in Chicago.  Her brother didn't have a car, so he asked his buddy to take him to go pick up his sister at Union Station.

From there my parents' relationship progressed mainly through letters.  My father, a graduate student in his mid-twenties, enjoyed chess and philosophical debates.  My mother, still at that time a teenager, wanted to impress him.  So she worked hard on her letters and studied up on her philosophy.  But considering the nature of things - Do universals exist, or only singular things? - is not a true interest of my mother's.

Fast forward, then, to last year when a woman in my book club began reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  She enjoyed the novel very much and felt inspired to tackle several classics she'd missed along the way, including Anna Karenina.  This caught my interest, because I was - and still am - reading Jack Murnighan's Beowulf at the Beach: What to love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.  I too have been inspired to go back and pick up a few classics for fun.

But I needed a bit more motivation before launching into Tolstoy, to I eagerly borrowed The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  (Some of the characters in the novel are big fans of 19th century Russian literature.)  Unfortunately, I got to Murnighan's chapter on Flaubert's Madame Bovary at the same time I was beginning Hedgehog.  I've read Madame Bovary at least twice, and I detest it.  I'd rather shove toothpicks under my fingernails than read it again; the sensation is much the same.  And this is how Murnighan starts his chapter on Flaubert:

"If you were to read them in quick succession, paying attention mostly to the plot (and nodding off now and then mid-sentence), you might not be able to tell Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina apart."

Enthusiasm for tackling Tolstoy: dashed.

But the premise of The Elegance of the Hedgehog grabbed me from the beginning so I persisted.  A middle-aged French concierge pretends to be much less intelligent and cultured than she is to avoid notice from the tenants in her building.  One of those tenants, an extremely bright and precocious 12-year-old girl, has decided that she doesn't ever want to be like the stupid grown-ups around her and is considering suicide.  The story progresses through their journal entries.  And I can't tell you how it ends, because I still have 50 pages left to read.  (No spoilers, please!) 

This is a very good novel, and an enjoyable read.  Especially if you enjoy philosophy.  I'm hesitant to talk too much about the language and writing, because I'm reading an English translation (the original is in French).  And, frankly, I'm more like my mother in this way than I am like my father: lengthy philosophical debates are not my thing.  I realize I've been sort of skimming for a few paragraphs, waiting for the plot to pick up again.  Then I force myself to go back, reread slowly, and pay attention.

"Oh, you're reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog," my mother observed.  "I did not enjoy that book. Too much philosophical pondering for me." 

"I enjoyed it," my father replied mildly.  "For pretty much the exact reasons your mother did not." 

Barbery does not talk down to children, and she really gets that kids can understand a lot more than we give them credit for.  I found 12-year-old Paloma pretty believable.  In Beowulf at the Beach, on the other hand, Murnighan repeatedly insists that we ruin literature for people by forcing it onto high school kids who can't possibly understand it. Au contraire. In high school I read a lot of philosophy (and classical novels, too: Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, and so forth) and I loved it all, even when I hated it.  I did understand Kant and Machiavelli and Marx and Descartes and Plato.  In fact, I read and understood and pondered and cared so much more then than I do now, when my mind is full of more pressing concerns like remembering to change the ceiling fans from their summer to winter settings. 

So.  Can't talk about the ending, can't talk about the writing, can't talk about the philosophy, and yet I've written a terribly long review anyway.  I'll conclude with this:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel about people who like discussing literature and philosophy.  But even if you haven't read Tolstoy and don't enjoy pondering the existence of universality, it's still a good story.  And it's a book about smart people hiding their intelligence to avoid notice but eventually recognizing each other and making connections despite the barriers imposed by class, station, age, and race.  And that is the story I loved to read.

This review is part of the January meeting of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.  More reviews here:

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@Barrie Summy


Barrie said...

I think you may be the first review up this month! Too bad there's not some sort of prize. ;) I actually own this book, but haven't read it yet. Now I'm curious: am I like your mother or your father! Thanks for reviewing!!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved this book. It was a bit more work than most but well worth it.

Ellen Booraem said...

I love the way you put this in the context of your parents! Always makes the review hit home more, somehow. Sounds like a fascinating book...I'll look out for it. Thanks for the review!

Stacy said...

This is one of those books that I absolutely have to read . . . but haven't got around to yet.

Great review.

Sarahlynn said...

Barrie, the thing that often makes me wonder in novels is how characters can quote and recognize such a large variety of passages from other works (poetry, classic novels, college textbooks). Is it just me who forgets everything but plot and emotional response as soon as I'm done reading something? Also - my concentration on plot and character development definitely get the way of reading things like textbooks.

Patti, and didn't it make you want to learn more, think harder, be better? I love a book that does that for me.

Ellen, thank you! I wondered if this approach would only appeal to people who know my parents.

Stacy, I felt the same way for quite a while, which is why it was a good book for me to borrow. Needing to return it gave me the feeling of a deadline so I finally picked up the book and was well rewarded. :-)

Sarahlynn said...

I copy my blog posts over to my Facebook page and am loving the discussion going on over there - it's like a book club discussion of this novel! This has happened the last few months, too (where a lot of book discussion happens in my Facebook notes for the Book Review Club). I think this means I'm really in THREE book discussion groups now!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I love that you included your father's and mother's reactions to this book!

And the Murnighan book sounds very interesting indeed. :)

Great review.

Sarahlynn said...

Thanks! My parents live over 300 miles away from me, but so often when I pick up a book one or both of them have already read it. I love that!

I don't agree with everything Murnighan says, but I'm really enjoying his book. I heard about it on NPR and immediately added it to my Amazon wish list. :-)

Anonymous said...

Good lord. Ceiling fans are _seasonal_?

So much for writing my magnum o. I've got bigger things to worry about now. Thanks.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Enjoyed your thoughtful review. The characters in the book sound quite interesting, and I think I, too, would much rather read The Elegance of the Hedgehog than Beowulf at the Beach!

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Olah Momma! said...

That's an interesting book to read...

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