Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Posted on September 8, 2010

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I’m taking a break from a bit of the explicit feminist musing to write a review I should have published some weeks ago.  What can I say about The Elegance of the Hedghog? It makes my heart flutter to think about it.  When I was reading it, I would carry it around from subway to work to home clutched tightly to my chest, hoping some of the loveliness would seep into my being.  I don’t really feel objective enough to analyze or review this book, but I’m stubborn and I’ll do so anyway.

See, The Elegance touches on every book-nerve I’ve got.  If the Forgotten Garden evoked the childhood I never had, Barbery’s piece speaks to the child I was (and still am).  The plot is inconsequential.  There isn’t a plot, really, for I can think of only two things that happen in the book: the beginning, and the end.  Instead, it’s a funny set of interactions between kindred spirits in an otherwise ordinary world (oh yes, kindred spirits Anne Shirley). They’re each characters you might encounter every day: the angsty teenager Paloma, the homely widowed concierge Renée, the Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu.  But they have rich private lives, so rich that the pages overflow with their pondering.

Examined lives, ultra-examined lives.  Lives full of role-playing the mundane while inwardly subverting all the ordinariness that surrounds them.  They have the escapism of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the spunk of The Puschart War, the fierceness of Harriet the Spy, and the intense uniqueness of A Wrinkle in Time.  I am drunk on a young bibliophile’s nostalgia.

I went on to read Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, a series of final food memories and wishes of a moribund, morally questionable food critic. I shouldn’t have.  There are few non-Toni-Morrison writers who can strike such magical tones more than once.  Gourmet Rhapsody could have left a bad taste behind, but I’ve come to terms with it.  It’s a good book on its own, of course.  It’s just that The Elegance is more like a window into my literary soul.  The next time I read (and reread) the latter, I’ll do so a chapter at a time, and savor the reminiscence.

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