Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I fell completely off the horse in terms of my goal of finishing 52 books in 2011.  This last month has been a struggle.  I know it's not technically winter, but it certainly feels like it, and I always struggle with being motivated to do anything once the days get shorter and darker.  I've pumped up my Vitamin D intake and the Cobbler has insisted that I take out my Happy Light so I have an inkling of hope that I can still make it!

Bearing that in mind, I have been wading my way through The Elegance of the Hedgehog over the last month.  It was my book club's pick for our December meeting so needless to say I didn't finish it in time, but the woman who is charge of getting our books back to the library took pity on me and let me keep the book a few extra days.  Thankfully, I completed it today--- my 46th book!

Just so we're clear here---the book is not about a hedgehog.  Well, not literally.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog has two narrators --- Renee, a 50 something concierge for a high end apartment building in Paris, and Paloma, a 12 year old girl who lives in one of the apartments.  Because she finds life to be pretty meaningless, Paloma is planning to kill herself and set her apartment on fire on her 13th birthday.  While the two characters don't have any interaction until mid way through the book, they have much in common.  Renee and Paloma both feel trapped in what they view as a sea of mediocrity.   They both feel they have to hide their intellect from those around them, and they both despise the airs put on by the wealthy people who live in the building.  Renee goes to such extremes to hide her intelligence so that she seems a "normal" concierge that she purchases poor quality food (apparently, a concierge wouldn't eat filet mignon) and rigs her TV to appear that it's on all the time to maintain the facade.  Everything changes when the food critic who lives on the fourth floor succumbs to a heart attack and his apartment is sold to a Japanese man named Kakuro Ozu.  Ozu immediately sees Renee and Paloma as they are and attempts to befriend them.  His actions ultimately change the course of their lives.  

Overall, I was charmed by this book.  Unlike the pretentious 15 year old narrator in the book The Beginners that I read earlier in the year, Paloma's 12 year old voice is actually believable.  She wants to find a reason to live in this world and hunts relentlessly for it.  Renee is also a very sympathetic character and you root for her to come out of her shell as the book progresses.  It's been common in many of the books I've read this year for the authors to have their narrators alternate chapters.  This is the case in this book as well.  One interesting twist though is the use of different fonts.  Renee has a font similar to Times New Roman, while Paloma has a tinier version of what appears to be Arial.

My only complaints with the book (which really are minor) are its long passages about philosophy and its apparent political agenda.  In this book, with the exception of Ozu, if you're rich, you're stupid.  The rich people in the book are educated, but about things that are pointless in Renee's view.  Paloma feels the same way about her entire family, which is justified by how they're portrayed, but it rang a little forced to me.  In addition, there were a few points in the book where the author was trying to make a point about the level of Renee's intelligence by having her go on and on about Kant and a couple other philosophers' theories.  That really made the book drag.  If those passages had been tightened up a bit by the book's editor, this book could have gone beyond charming to amazing.

In the end, The Elegance of the Hedgehog leaves you with a wonderful message --- that there is beauty to be found in our broken world.  And at this time of year, that's something that I needed to hear.

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