About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

#26 - The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (trans. Alison Anderson) (New York: Europa Editions, 2008), has been on my list for a while; I was excited to stumble across it in the library without looking too hard.

Summary: "The enthralling international bestseller. We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renee, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly, she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet unbeknownst to her employers, Renee is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence, she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence. Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parlimentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter. Paloma and Renee hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renee's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us."

Opening Line: "'Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,' declared the Pallieres boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me."

My take: A bit slow in the beginning, but ultimately a beautiful, rewarding story that's well worth the initial chapters.

The slow start may be partially me; in most cases, I have a hard time getting into stories whose narrators are so certain of their own superiority. What won me over here, though, is that both Renee's and Paloma's intelligence comes at a high price: namely, alienation. Renee's ongoing efforts to convince the residents of her building that she's a typically dull concierge are pretty funny, though I wasn't quite sure why it was so imperative that they be kept in the dark. Paloma's secret is more compelling, and often left me feeling like I wanted her to get more page time (the majority of which is Renee's). She's convinced that life is absurd and meaningless, and thus plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday -- swallowing the pills she's already begun stockpiling, and then burning the building down around her for good measure.

The other thing that makes Renee and Paloma seem sympathetic rather than just arrogant is that those around them are really impossibly thick. Paloma's mother blathers endlessly about Freud, her father about politics, and her sister Colombe (herself an outstanding, if not very creative, student) scarcely talks to Paloma at all. With a family like this, I might think the future looked pretty bleak, too. Renee has at least one friend in Manuela, a Portuguese woman who works as a housekeeper in her building ... but it's not she unthinkingly quotes Anna Karenina that Ozu (also a Tolstoy aficionado) begins to think she's not quite what she seems.

Oddly, not much actually happens in the novel. In its latter portions, Renee and Paloma's growing friendships with Ozu and one another do manage to crack their worldviews open, with life-changing repercussions for both ... but I'd be hard-pressed to describe the plot, other than offering the old trope about "a stranger comes to town." For the most part, the story is a vehicle for the protagonists' reflections on life, beauty, friendship, and love -- not usually the kind of thing I enjoy (I want a real plot and characters, darn it!), but it works here.

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