Summary: "Renée Michel is the dumpy, nondescript, 54-year-old concierge of a small and exclusive Paris apartment building.... "Paloma Josse also lives in the building. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this 12-year-old views the world as absurd and records her observations about it in her journal... "These two characters provide the double narrative of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you will -- this is going to sound corny -- fall in love with both.... -- Europa Editions
Nothing like waiting until the last minute to complete a challenge! I think I squeaked in by a day for The Fifty Books for our Times Reading Project hosted by My Friend Amy. I was on Twitter (big surprise) at the same time Amy was deciding to host this challenge, and I thought it was a great idea! Here's the deal: Newsweek came up with a list of 50 Books for our Times, and Amy opened it up so 50 bloggers (or more) could sign up to read and review a book from the list. I scooped up THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery because I had been wanting to read it for awhile, and I thought this challenge was a good reason.
I purchased the book right away but didn't start reading it until the end of December. THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG was not an easy read for me. I became a little frustrated with the book because I felt as if I weren't intelligent enough to "get" the characters' intellectual commentaries on life. After reading the first 100 pages or so, I wasn't thrilled with the book in the slightest, and I actually wasn't sure what all of the fuss was about. I decided to put the book down since the holidays were approaching and I was overwhelmed with life in general -- not an ideal time to read a book like this one. When I picked up the book a few days after Christmas, I had a totally different view of it. I read the last 200 plus pages in just a day (I couldn't put it down), and I can now say that I understand why THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG made Newsweek's 50 Books for our Times!
It is difficult for me to express just what I loved about this book. I think, first and foremost, that I was attracted to the main characters -- Renee and Paloma. Both were just so interesting, and I really felt as if I got to know them and even understand them throughout the course of the novel. Renee and Paloma were extremely intellectual and insightful (despite their attempts to hide this), and I thought the author did a marvelous job of telling their stories by alternating their voices in different chapters. So much of their commentary on life and other people was brilliant, and I often times found myself thinking about what they had said.
It almost goes without saying that this is just a beautiful story. The writing is nothing short of amazing (I think there should probably be some credit to the translator here too.) Ms. Barbery managed to create two memorable characters that will remain with me for a very long time. In addition, she brought forth many philosophical ideas about life that will actually cause readers to look at their lives and the people in them differently. While this book was definitely thought-provoking, Ms. Barbery also managed to have the perfect amount of satire and wit in this novel.
I was just blown away by how much I "felt" while reading this book. Both Renee and Paloma had experienced a great deal of pain in their lives, and my heart just ached for both of them. As I read this story, I was so happy that the author eventually allowed these characters to have a sense of hope. They had finally found some happiness in their lives and discovered people who really understood them. No spoilers here, but I can say that this book left me in tears quite a few times. The ending was a bittersweet one, but I thought it was just perfect.
I don't think THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG is for everyone, but I'm going to highly recommend it anyway. It is not an "easy" read for a variety of reasons, but I do think it is well worth the effort to read it. I am so glad that I didn't abandon it based on my initial impressions because I truly think this novel is a gem!