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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When a Book Disappoints: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

It’s been an international bestseller for several years, so when my library staff book discussion group decided to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I opened its pages with great anticipation. I had to put it down some 50 pages later – although I did read the last chapter to see if I had missed something.

Perhaps I’m not cosmopolitan enough or don’t understand the European obsession with “the intellectual” and class distinctions, but this novel by French author Muriel Burberry just couldn’t capture my attention. It is told in alternating chapters by Renee, a concierge in an upscale apartment building who feels she has to hide her intellectual interests from its occupants, and Paloma, a 12-year-old resident of the building who feels her life is meaningless. Both have great disdain for the class-conscious people in the building.

I agree with Caryn James, who reviewed The Elegance of the Hedgehog for the New York Times ("Thinking on the Sly," Sept. 5, 2008):

“Especially in the early chapters, Barberry, a professor of philosophy, seems too clever for her own good . . . Her brief chapters, more essays than fiction, so carefully build in explanations for the literary and philosophical references that she seems to be assessing what a mass audience needs. In just a few pages, Renée offers a mini-treatise on phenomenology.”

Actually, it was after the explanation of phenomenology that I felt I had to quit the book.

Renee and Paloma are interesting characters – both must hide aspects of themselves to survive – but that bond was not enough to sustain my interest. I understand the book improved when a third character Mr. Ozu moves into the building, but it was taking me too long to get to that point.

For it to be a bestseller, others must have found Burberry’s characters more engaging. Her first book Une Gourmandise was also popular, but isn’t available in English translation until next year.

Alas, that is the peril of being a book lover. Sometimes a novel disappoints.

Pat, Fairfax County Public Library

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