Janetmanley's Reviews > The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
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Mar 06, 2011

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Reading TEOTH seemed inevitable, and came with the weight of "international acclaim." first, it is apparent that the book can be criticized for committing a sort of flattery - the "see how much more intelligent we are than Everyone Else" characterization of the two protagonists, Renee, the 54yr old concierge in a Parisian apartment block, and Paloma, the precocious 12yr old within, seems destined to get the audience on side, as surely we, too, see that all else in the world is two dimensional and shallow. Accordingly, there seem to be plenty of "bah, populist philosophy!" reviewers who are able to denigrate the author and claim intellectual superiority in triumph. So easy to do once a book becomes too popular. And there does seem to be lots to lampoon, the voracious name-dropping, the Love of Art that heads into cliche-ridden manifestos about camilleas and moments in time. I feel as though the novel also commits and old crime of using Orientalism to pouf up the romance. I don't know what to make of the Karuko character, who surprises the bourgeois establishment at 7 Rue de G---, and goes after the ugly-but-smart aesthetic of Renee, at the expense of the anorexic drones who are his neighbors and class equals. In that sense, he is very much a Mr Darcy, falling for the heroine in spite of class, looks and a lack of warmth - he declares Renee smart, in spite of her hiding from him and exhibiting only her "stupidity disguise" - and therefore very much a fiction. I also thought that Mozart has no place coming from a toilet.
Anyhow, easy criticisms out of the way, the fresher, crisper essays penned by Paloma as "profound thoughts" are well written. The world of Renee generally is lyrical and small in that French way, and pleasant to be in. The friendships are sweet and the jabs at class quite funny. The book is also quick enough that such a simple idea, the "noble savage," as Renee self-identifies (wrongly, if I recall post-colonial theory, which was focused on race not class, and on actual colonizing, I.e. Destroying a culture that had existed prior), works neatly. Plus, Muriel Barbery writes very well, and can pull off some of the hoky beauty, art, cliches because the writing is elevated and formal throughout the book. (side note: what is wrong with "bring"?!)
Billy Connolly once said, "I have said a lot of things that are profound, would you like to hear a profundity?"
This book is full of them, capital P!
No denying Barbery's skill.

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