Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

As it turns out, I read Barbery's first novel before her second; Gourmet Rhapsody was published first in France, but second in the United States. So I didn't get them backwards, after all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes place in the same apartment building as Gourmet Rhapsody, and the action, interestingly, begins at the same time as that of Gourmet Rhapsody. The news of the imminent demise of everyone's most-hated food critic kicks off a chain reaction that affects numerous other inhabitants of the building, most specifically, Paloma, whose family occupies the apartment above the food critic's, and  Madame (Renee) Michel, the concierge of the building. Neither is what they seem; both behave like stereotypes in order to hide their intelligence. Paloma, who has all but given up on life (at the age of twelve!), has resolved to commit suicide on her next birthday/ Madame Michel, haunted by her childhood, is a recluse in a building full of people, carefully hiding her reading (lots of Russian novels) and viewing (Japanese art films) material. Paloma pretends to be a typical, airheaded teenager while Renee hides behind a facade of soap operas and intentionally idiotic remarks.

Their carefully-crafted illusions start to crack when a mysterious stranger, Kakuro Ozu, moves into the now-vacant apartment and befriends them both. Their friendships with Ozu, and each other, dramatically transform them. Barbery does an excellent job intertwining their thoughts, beliefs, and commentary into a cohesive narrative, and the characters themselves are fantastically well-rendered. I had a difficult time putting this one down! While The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in a very similar style to Gourmet Rhapsody and involves many of the same characters, I found myself enjoying it much more. I think that's mostly because it's longer, which allowed for a more fleshed-out, complex story. I also appreciated the multiple perspectives and the more philosophical tone.

Rapturous. 5 out of 5 stars.

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