Saturday, December 26, 2009

Elegance of the Hedgehog

Oh, my, word, I loved this book. So why did I give it one star? Because it is heavily, heavily, flawed and could probably use a re-read to fully appreciate it.

I picked out The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery for our library to purchase which probably assures that I will be the only one to read it. Which is truly a shame. This is a translated French novel that is supposed to be about a precocious 12-year old girl, a wealthy Japanese man, and the concierge of the apartment building in which they live. You know I like books about precocious kids so it shouldn't be a surprise that I liked this.

This book was a surprise to me given that I expected there to be much interaction between the three. Instead, the book focuses on the concierge. This woman is an extremely intelligent person who, for some reason, chooses to hide her intellect from her upscale residents and rather plays the part of the uneducated, can't do anything else with her life, servant. The 61 chapters are told from her point of view and focus on her philosophies of life, status and intellect.

Interspersed within these chapters are 23 journal entries (hey, cool, 23 and 61 are prime) from the little girl which focus on her philosophies of life, status and intellect.

The first 129 pages are solitary musings by these pair, no Japanese man in sight. It at times as excruciating because it isn't going anywhere. The little girl is suicidal as she is unappreciated and unloved and cannot seem to find anything in life worth living for. The concierge isn't much better, choosing to lead a life mostly of concealed solitude, her only friend being a Portugese cleaning woman in the building. There is a lot of wailing and gnashing by the two that begins to wear you down.

Then there's also the pretentiousness of the pair. Oh my, we're so smart and no one appreciates us. That gets irritating. For the first part of the book, though, what bothered me the most was the vocabulary and lack of editing. The book is translated into English which can always cause problems but there are a bunch of omitted, extra or misspelled words. Just way too many. Because of this, I came to question the translation early on, like when the concierge uses the word autodidact three times in a single paragraph. I don't think I've ever used the word autodidact three times in my life, despite largely being an autodidact. Wait, did I just use autodidact three times, no, now four, in a paragraph? Dang it! It felt like one of those instances when you're a kid and someone learned a new word and feels the need to use it all the time to demonstrate that they learned this big word. Which would have been fine for the 12 year old but not the concierge.

Likewise, I was bothered when the concierge described a dog as being "lubricious" and then two pages later, in a journal entry, the little girl calls the same dog "lubricious". I'm no Michael Chabon and my vocabulary is decidedly limited but come on, a 12 year old pulling that one out. Because of the closeness in the book I got the feeling that it was one of those situations where the author used two slightly different words that don't quite translate well into English and the translator went with that word instead of, oh, slippery. I tended to believe this theory to be correct because of all the other editing problems.

But then everything changed. One of the residents dies and, for the first time in forever, there is no family member to take over the apartment and so it is sold to a Japanese man. To say that everything changes in an understatement.

The last 200 pages of this book are incredible. There are turns of phrases that made me weep. Just beautiful, insightful, hopeful, thoughtful words perfectly placed in the story. The relationships and thoughts of the two heroines change but it's not over the top. Then the ending is so sad and so full of hope. Two extremely minor characters from the first part of the book, so minor you don't ever think about them, return and add immensely to the story. For the first third of the book I couldn't stop thinking of where the book fit among my least favorite books. For the last part, I couldn't figure out where it fit among my favorites.

The last part is so good, it actually got me analyzing the first part. Was the repetition of words intentional, as if to reaffirm the monotony of the lives of the two females? Did the story have to go that long before the Japanese man makes his appearance so that the impact is more appreciated? I mean, really....can an author really write some of the most exquisite prose I've ever read in the same book where I found myself thinking about not even trying to finish it (and I did. I think if I hadn't selected it for the library, I probably would not have completed it).

Definitely, definitely read this book. Tough it out in the early part. It's worth it in the end.

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