Monday, May 23, 2011

French Elegance

Author: Muriel Barbery
Book: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Language: Translated from French
Publisher: Gallic Books, 2008

A writer friend of mine urged me to read this book, so when I saw it in the airport bookshop I decided it would keep me company for the flight home from Barcelona. My copy has a beautiful cover, with dreamy-coloured French houses in twilight, a stained-glass window effect and (appropriately) elegant text. Humour and levity balance the profound thoughts of life,  culture and the delicacy of human interactions.

The hedgehog of the title is the book's main character, Renee. More cultured and observant than any concierge ought to be, Renee is a clever but understated woman who conceals her inner elegance. She is known as Madame Michel to the residents of the prestigious Paris apartment on the Left Bank. The novel is propelled by two narratives, one from Renee and the other twelve-year-old Paloma, who lives in the apartment where Renee is the concierge. Paloma is not your typical preteen. She is determined to escape what she believes is a 'predictably bourgeoise future' (Gallic, back cover copy) and is intent on writing 'profound thoughts' in her journal prior to committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday. She is one of three people who sees glimpses of the intelligence Renee tries to hide.

The characters' speech is nuanced just so, and the travails of everyday life are expressed in sure, deliberate prose. Barbery's supporting characters could easily have been empty caricatures, but each contributes to the atmosphere of Renee's Paris. The book is charming and accessible, and French down to the spine.


Anna said...

I've had this book sitting on my bedside table for about a year now... One day!

Julia G said...

Anna, I was able to put it down and pick it up again... the chapter breaks often switch perspectives between Renee and Paloma, so maybe you could read it in pieces? :)


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