Do you ever finish reading a book, leave it for a while, and still have no idea what you thought of it? That’s this book for me. I’ve been letting it “settle” for over a month now, and I’m no closer to a succinct, concise review than I was when I closed the cover. So if you decide to read on, be warned it might get messy.
I originally picked up this book because I saw it compared to the French film Amélie, starring Audrey Tatou, which is one of my all-time favourite films. Not a lot happens in it, but the main character is quirky, the set is bright and colourful and quaint, the structure of the film is charming and it just leaves me feeling a sense of possibility in the world. And more importantly, that a small life can still be significant. But I’ve not read many books that mirror the atmosphere and characters in the film, though I have been looking. So when I saw this book mentioned alongside Amélie, you could say my interest was piqued.
This is a very slow book. It’s nearly entirely about the characters (more specifically, two characters) and has very little in the way of plot until the very end of the book. It is written from the twin perspectives of Renée and Paloma – the former a middle-aged concierge, the latter a twelve-year-old who lives with her parents and sister in the building Renée cares for. It’s quite an upscale building, so the tenants are wealthy and posh. Both of these characters share a surprising characteristic: a much higher level of intelligence than the world around them assumes, based on age or social station. The book comprises their intellectual pursuits and observations about the world and people around them.
The thing that tripped me up about this book the most wasn’t the slowness of the story – I actually quite like character-driven, quiet novels. The problem was that I really didn’t like how the characters were written. And since the entire book is in their heads, that was a problem. Both spend a lot of time telling the reader how remarkably intelligent they are compared to those around them, and how tiresome it is to be surrounded by such ignorant and shallow people. Renée spends her spare time reading high-brow literature and watching obscure arty films, but she goes to great pains to hide her intelligence and self-education from the residents of the apartment building because… well, I’m not really sure why. It seems that she feels it would be in poor taste for a person in her lowly societal position to admit that they have read the works of Tolstoy. Which she goes on about at great length and which really, really started to irritate me. I wanted to reach into the book, take her by the shoulders, give her a good shake and tell her to get over herself.
Paloma similarly goes to great lengths to tell us how much more intelligent she is than her family members – particularly her sister – and to share her sense of ennui with the world around her in which she sees no point. I could forgive her self-obsession and grandiose claims a little more because she is very young and demonstrably clever. But still, it wore on me after a while.
It wasn’t until about the last third of the novel that a new resident moves into the building and affects the lives of both Renée and Paloma (and gives the reader a bit more to be getting on with). The two main characters also finally begin interacting with one another a bit more, which was more interesting to me than their inner monologues. The last bit of this book won me over and was actually very enjoyable. It wasn’t quite what I had hoped based on the comparisons to Amélie, but it was still very good.
So I’m left in a tricky position as a reviewer. There were bits in the first section that I did like, but the constant self-congratulatory tone of the characters grated on me – I wanted to be shown not told how smart they were. I really enjoyed the last part of the book, but it was not the majority of the story, and I’m not sure how far that takes me in terms of an overall assessment.
I also wonder if part of the issue was that I read it in translation and from an entirely different cultural background from that of the author and characters. I’m not saying it was necessarily a bad translation, rather that a book like this, that relies so little on plot, needs to be written in such a way that the words themselves provide entertainment. And because it was translated, I feel that the prose suffered by becoming more stilted, and what might have been a more lyrical tone disappeared when read in English. Further to this issue, I read it as a Canadian who has never lived in Paris, and therefore has little to no understanding of French society and culture. I feel like some of what I found irritatingly arrogant probably didn’t come across that way in its native language and cultural context. I talked to my mother (who is from Europe, though not France) at length about this book – which she loved. She said she found it humorous, and didn’t have the same issue with the presentation of the characters’ intelligence – that she felt like it was tongue in cheek and almost poking fun (if I remember her comments correctly). She saw a lot more in the text than I did, and that clearly made the book much more enjoyable for her.
Overall I think I need to average out my reading experience in the first part of the book and the last and come out somewhere in the middle. It is an interesting book – particularly if you enjoy slow burners and culturally based character studies. Even better if you are from Europe and/or are able to read it in French. However if you’re one who is easily annoyed by internal monologues or relies on plot to carry a story, this is definitely not the book for you. I’m glad I finally read it, and I think that my feelings on it will continue to evolve over time, but I wanted to write the review while it’s still somewhat fresh in my memory. I know many of the people whose opinions I respect loved it, so it’s quite possible the issues I had were my own and no fault of the book.
I’d really love to hear from anyone who has read this. I’d be interested to know if anyone had the same issues I did, and if not what you thought of the style and character development. If anyone has read it in French, I’d really love to hear your thoughts on the writing – particularly if you’ve also read any part in English. Similarly I’d be fascinated if any of you can shed light on the cultural context of the characters in this novel and how that has impacted their presentation and development. Definitely one that would be great for discussion!
Renée is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renée passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives.
Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.
By turn moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the French publishing phenomenon of 2007: from an initial print run of 3,000 to sales of over 2 million in hardback. It took 35 weeks to reach the number one bestseller spot but has now spent longer in the French bestseller lists than Dan Brown. – Goodreads
Book Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Published By: Gallic Books
Released: June 2008 (originally released 2006)P
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated
Date Read: June 27-July 13, 2017
Rating: 6/10 (or maybe more or maybe less… really I just don’t know.)