Muriel Barbery, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

I wanted to like The Elegance of the Hedgehog. For one thing, it has been brought to us by the estimable Europa Editions, publishers of the totally wonderful Jane Gardam. Clearly these are people of discernment.

Then, of course, I am a francophile, so the premise — cranky ugly autodidact concierge warms up to brilliant suicidal twelve-year-old girl in a grand Paris apartment building — was immensely appealing.  And in fact I did love the stuff about life in the building; the to-ing and fro-ing of the Parisian Great and Good.  There’s a marvelous scene where Paloma gets dragged by her mother to a sale in a lingerie store on the rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, and witnesses a battle to the death over a pair of lacy underpants, carried out under the guise of the utmost courtesy.

I was a good sport about the intermittent lessons on philosophy or the Japanese concept of wabi that come from Renée, the concierge.  (The structure has her observations alternating with those of Paloma, the twelve-year-old.) Read ’em all, took them in. It even occurred to me that I was not to take this whole story literally which is a difficult concept for me. Perhaps a novel in which a pair of sisters are named “Paloma” and “Colombe” is signalling some allegorical intent. OK. Authors have different intentions. I can wrap my head around that.

But here’s what you don’t do — you don’t graft together all this highfalutin philosophy and this clever wise-cracking narration with a story too sappy for Frances Hodgson Burnett.  You just don’t.  Least of all do you pull the stunt that Muriel Barbery does at the end. Suffice it to say that the final words of the book are: “The beauty in this world.” Nope. No preaching.

The handsome Gallimard edition

The handsome Gallimard edition

This book was a huge best seller in France and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for almost three months, so lots of people are buying and enjoying it. I guess I’m just crankier than I thought.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to Muriel Barbery, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

  1. Pingback: Laurence Cosse, “A Novel Bookstore” « Book Group of One

  2. motheretc says:

    Thank you – I really liked this book until the end, which I detested, and left me with a bad taste in my mouth (which is possible sometimes when reading).

  3. carolwallace says:

    Yes, I was infuriated. I really felt that she just didn’t know how to finish it and took the easy way out. I totally agree about the “bad taste.”

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