Love it or Hate it? The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Have you ever noticed how some books seem to drive a wedge between people? You check the reviews and find almost no middle-of-the-road ratings. Instead people either seem to love it or hate it. Welcome to the Love it or Hate it post! Each month, we’ll pick one book to review and two contributors will battle it out to convince you to pick it up or throw it out. Last time we discussed The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. For the first time since starting this feature, the “Hate it/don’t want to read it” people won with 58% of the vote! Many thanks to our reviewers for their awesome reviews. Our very own Book Worm was the Love it Reviewer and Zombie Kitten was our Hate it Reviewer.
This month’s selection is yet another of Boxall’s 1001 Books to Read Before you Die: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Read the reviews and let us know whether either of the reviewers managed to convince you. I do have strong feelings about this book but I’ll leave it up to you to guess whether I loved it or hated it (I was not one of the reviewers).
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary
First published in: 2006
Find it/buy it here: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Synopsis (from Amazon): We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, 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, Renée 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 parliamentarian, 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 an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée 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 Renée’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.
LOVE IT (Reviewer A): I read this book several years ago, and while I don’t remember all the details, I do remember how much I loved it. I can understand why it won’t appeal to some people, but it is a book that touched me in many different ways and to me, that is always a good reason to love a book.
The book is told in diary format from the perspective of two people who could not be more different. Yet underneath their public faces are two people who could not be more alike. While Renee and Paloma live in the same building, they seldom come in contact and we only learn of their inner lives through their diary entries. When Kakura Ozu, a new tenant in their building, enters their lives everything changes.
Why did I love this book? First and foremost is the writing. I am a fan of epistolary novels. Through letters or diary entries there is a greater sense of the person by seeing the world through the eyes of the letter or diary writer. I love how two people can have the same experience and see it completely differently. Who is right or wrong? Realistic or delusional? Through their personal musings we learn that nobody is completely right or wrong. Through the diary entries we become one with the writer of the diary. It gives us an intimate look into the way their mind works. It gives voices to those we often do not ‘see’.
Second to the writing are the characters. Renee, Paloma and Ozu are rich characters that we can like, dislike, agree with, disagree with and still care about. It can be a juggling act, yet the author never loses sight of who these people are and neither do we the readers.
I love books that make you think, sometimes very deep thoughts and then make you laugh out loud. And in the case of this particular book, it can also make you achingly sad with a story that can break your heart into a million tiny pieces.
I can understand that some people may not like this book. It is very heavy handed on the philosophical discussions, and that can get a little tiresome. But for me that wasn’t an issue and to have been able to spend a few days with Renee, Paloma and Ozu it was well worth the journey.
So I unashamedly loved this book.
HATE IT (Reviewer B): This book is boring, boring boring! I really wasn’t a fan. Paloma is not the least bit likable, and though I initially thought that about Renee she did grow on me over the course of the novel. There was a lot of boring, sleep-inducing philosophy in the book which made me lose interest quickly. Paloma was ridiculously snobby and hard to connect with as a character. The book got slightly better in the second half, but overall, philosophy is not my thing, the characters were mostly unlikable and “pretty” prose doesn’t impress me (in fact, it usually bores me, and did again this time).
As I look at my review again a couple of years later, I can’t even remember what grew on me about Renee. I just remember all the philosophy that bored me to tears.
So, if you have trouble with unlikeable characters, aren’t interested if there isn’t much of a plot, and aren’t interested in philosophy, you’ll hate this too. It sure wasn’t for me!”
What do you think? Vote in our poll and tell is if you love it or hate it. If you haven’t read it, you can vote on whether you want to or not.