At my library, there are printouts at the circulation desk of each librarian/clerk’s favorite and most recommended books. I’ve picked up several of them, after looking through and seeing which librarians seem to have more than one or two titles in common with my own list of well-liked books. It was one of these lists that led me to seek out Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
The novel as written by Ms. Barbery is actually in French, titled “L’Élégance du Hérisson,” but I (a) did not realize this initially, (b) did not have immediate access to the French language version, and (c) would not have understood enough of it to bother trying anyway. For these reasons, I read the English language edition, translated by Alison Anderson.
The story is told from the perspective of two main characters, one a woman in her fifties, and one a precocious girl of twelve. Both characters live in the same building, but the former is the lower-class concierge of said building, while the latter is a wealthy resident, the youngest member of a well-to-do, political family.
What these two characters have in common is a desire to fly under the radar and hide their superior intellects and philosophical natures from the superficial, posturing people who surround them. They are really two peas in a pod, but since they are both so skilled at subterfuge, neither is aware of the other’s similarity to herself.
The book is somewhat slow to advance, being rather dense with cultural references and generous doses of philosophy (of which the author is a professor). It is very enjoyable despite being somewhat heavy reading. I did not make quick progress through it, because I was not in the right frame of mind to be putting much effort into a book. It requires some mental discipline to stay focused on certain passages, and I did tend to drift off into unrelated trains of thought from time to time. I had to go back and re-read on multiple occasions.
The pace picked up for the last forty or fifty pages, as the plot became more engaging and eventually quite beautiful. The increased intermingling of all the characters, as a result of some new arrivals, helped to move things along, as this disrupted the status quo and became a catalyst for unexpected events.
On the whole, the story is quite lovely, and rather emotional as well as humorous. It was well worth any extra exertion I put into reading it, and it was easy to see why it has been so highly acclaimed internationally, especially as I neared the end.
It does have sort of a French feel to it, if that makes any sense, and there were some cultural references and linguistic nuances that escaped me. For all that, I don’t think I missed enough to have much of an impact on my experience of the book.
It may not be great beach reading, but if you’re looking for something to really sink your teeth into, I very much recommend “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”