Monday, July 20, 2009

book review day

i am committed to writing more on this little blog, and one thing that i know will light the proverbial fire is to talk about books that i am reading, have read, or would like to read. perhaps if i get really bored i will talk about books that i never, under any circumstances, want to read. for now, though, i will open with the book i am three pages from finishing: the elegance of the hedgehog, by muriel barbery.

hedgehog has won a great deal of critical acclaim, which often makes me skeptical about a book's accessibility. add that to the fact that it is a french novel by a philosophy professor with a shining-like cover illustration, and i will tell you that i was not chomping at the bit to read it. i love a good novel as much as anyone, and would never turn down a trip to france or a crepe. but the esoteric, materialistic, despairing ways of french philosophers and novelists don't normally make for good summer reading, and what else is july for if not plum sykes et al?
fortunately, i got stuck with hedgehog at fallen leaf lake, when my enormous volume on the mitford sisters proved entirely too heavy to hold up to the sun down on the dock, and too willing to transfer its dark cover images to my white, sunscreen-covered thighs. reaching for the only other book that i brought, i read and read and read until i found myself deeply interested in this book, which feels like a lot of essays and a story all at once, and its characters, who are by turns endearing, snobbish, surprising, funny, wickedly intelligent, and insightful.
one of the reviews on the back of the book says that this book is a great deal more than the sum of its parts, and i think that is the most apt praise i have heard. hedgehog is the story of two women - a girl and a woman, really - living in the same apartment building on one of the ritziest streets in Paris; an apartment building with eight units which, until halfway through the book, have never transfered ownership but merely been passed on from family to child for generations.
paloma josse is twelve years old, and has just the kind of wealthy, eccentric parents and cloyingly banal older sister that you would imagine come with an apartment like that and a girl who announces early on her intention to commit suicide on june 16th because life is meaningless and full of the "vacuousness of bourgeois existence." she keeps journals, which we read in bold typeface, of her deep thoughts and the various movements of the world around her.
renee michel is the fifty-four year-old concierge at number 7, rue de grenelle. she has a deep appreciation for russian literature (see: cat named leo), philosophy (although not phenomenology), white tea, and japanese films. she is completely resigned to her station as a concierge, meaning that she should not be interested in these things and she hides behind a feigned commitment to all things pedestrian. with time, friends of hers (including, later on, paloma) crack through her veneer and give her the gift of herself, a gift that the reader senses she has never really held onto.
renee and paloma are totally different and completely similar, and you sense the tragedy it is that they only become friends in the final chapters of the book. renee teaches paloma that not all adults are the same, and paloma draws renee from her sitting chair into the world of people. it is a lovely friendship, and a lovely book. it is charming and tragic, and is lofty without turning you away. it assumes nothing about the reader, and that is refreshing.

1 comment:

Myrna Perez said...

I'm just in the midst of catching up on reading your blog (it may or may not be true that it's in my browser's tool bar so that I know immediately when there's an update). Imagine my delight in finding so many entries since I left for europe!

Your review makes me want to read this book. Which is tragic, since really, I always have too many books on my 'to read' list. On the top at the moment: The Namesake. I love that it's set in Cambridge MA.