Thursday, March 19, 2009

About the Hedgehog

As I was finishing up this lovely, thought provoking book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I decided to think about it the way I would if it had been a book club choice. One of the first things that struck me was the enthralling and curious title. What is it about a hedgehog that fits with this book about two women who ostensibly share nothing in common and the man who saw them as no one else did and brought them together?

Madame Michel, middle-aged widow, concierge for the well-heeled denizens at 7 Rue de Grenelle, prefers to keep a low profile, trusts few but her cat Leo (named after Tolstoy) and her best friend Manuela, a housekeeper in the same building. Paloma, 12 years old, younger daughter to a couple of social climbers who despair of their strange little bookworm of a jeune fille as much as she despairs of them, also prefers to hide out with her journal and her thoughts. Two delightfully prickly characters, much like the maligned hedgehog, allow the reader access to their inner-most thoughts through alternating chapters delineated by typeface. In this way we discover the depth of Rene's and Paloma's ruminations on everything from music to literature and film, from politics to social ills, from religion to agnosticism and even to death. Yes, little Paloma has convinced herself that suicide is the only sensible alternative to life with her family.

Enter Mr. Kakuro Ozu, catalyst, visionary, intellectual, savior. Reading the ideas of these fictional characters feels like sitting in a philosophy class. One is forced to think, question perceptions, argue and agree, without ever feeling put upon. This is not work! Curious about the French author Muriel Barbery, I looked her up online - yup, don't hate me, Wikipedia - and sure enough, Ms. Barbery is a professor of Philosphy. Kudos to translater Alison Anderson for what must be a superb job as the language is transporting. This novel won all kinds of awards in France in '07 but is just now getting some good bounce in the states. Two thumbs up.

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