Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The concierge, Time Magazine tells us, comprises a special class in France. They come from a single mold, cast with pulled-back hair, grey skin and grey souls. (Circa 1964, at least.) They were once the ubiquitous keepers of French apartment buildings, living in humble apartments on the ground floor and tending to the needs of the residents. Invisible and uninteresting, presumably.

Such is one of the heroines in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The concierge Renee describes herself as ugly and afflicted with bunions, but we quickly learn that her invisibility is a well-crafted mask. Behind her frumpy, cantankerous exterior lies a woman of great intellectual curiosity who is captivated by the beauty of Art, if dismayed by the shortfalls of the world, particularly those of her residents.

One of the residents is twelve-year-old Paloma, a brilliant child who manages her own masquerade as she hides her intelligence and sensitivity from her family and schoolmates. Disappointed by the world, Paloma tells us that she intends to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, lighting her family's luxury apartment on fire as a final farewell.

But the world still has some magic, both transformational and tragic, to work on these women. The story is mostly the record of their observations, their musings on life, art, beauty, and disappointment. Little happens in the sense of a traditional plot, but much is revealed.

I had checked this book out from the library and I wanted to return it today, before it was overdue. But I had not yet finished reading it so I stood in the library, which was crowded with patrons fleeing the downpour unleashed on the world outside, and I read the final pages. I completely forgot where I was - forgot that I was standing in a library, forgot that I was on my lunchbreak and needed to get back to work promptly, forgot that I was even in the United States. Barbery's characters are beautiful and her writing is a joy. (Which means that proper credit is due to Alison Anderson and her crystalline translation.) I love that I live in a world where a strange, philosophizing book like this one becomes a best seller.

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Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma