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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This book is about two people: one, a concierge named Renee, the other a twelve year old girl named Paloma. Both are geniuses trying to hide it. Both live at 7 rue de Grenelle, in an elegant hotel in France.

First off, I really liked this book. And I mean, I really liked it. But I do realize that this book is not for everyone. But I’ll get to that later.

I loved reading this. Most of the chapters consist of philosophical debates and observations, but underlying those are the impressions each person experiences as they go through their every day lives. There is, of course, an overall plot, the events that take place within the hotel.

So of course, the main thing I enjoyed was the intellectual debates that they have within the novel. Renee and Paloma contemplate most of the Big Questions (i.e. What is the purpose of life?), as well as the basis of humanity. Their commentary ranges from absolutely hilarious to extremely insightful, and I found myself laughing through most of it.

Renee, for starters, has a very dry sense of humor, but she also has a lot of fear. She’s scared, almost constantly, that she will get found out. Which, of course, makes for even more entertaining commentaries and scenes. Paloma, on the other hand, does not fear the spotlight, but rather just doesn’t care. She lets people think she’s stupid, because it’s simply easier to get peace and quiet that way. She’s also a bit suicidal. (Well, when I say a bit…) I, personally, found both of these characters absolutely delightful. If I had to choose between the two, I probably would not be able to. And it just made it so much better that the novel switched between their two points of view–something I didn’t realize, and got very confused until I figured it out (I hadn’t read the summary before picking it up off my book shelf. I’d gotten the paperback years ago as a birthday present, but hadn’t been interested in reading it. So of course, I was very confused when in one chapter, the narrator said that they were seven years old, and in another, they were suddenly fifty-four. I had thought, at first, that the book was just bouncing through time, but eventually the events in the hotel started to converge and then I thought, “Huh?” So don’t make the same mistake! Read the summary!)

I will say this, though: this book is very hard to follow if read out loud to someone else, and it does contain a lot of big words. Just for an example, I’m including an excerpt at the end of this review. Please, please read it before deciding to pick up the book; if you can’t understand it, you should probably hold off reading it for a little while. But you should read it. It’s really good.

This book is a rather  harder read, and it does talk about drugs and sex, among other things.

Here’s the excerpt:

Which way lies the truth, in the end? In power, or in Art? Is it not the power of well-crafted discourse which enables us not only to sing the praises of mankind’s creations but also to denounce as a crime of illusory vanity the urge to dominate, which moves us all–yes, all, even a wretched concierge in her cramped loge who, although she may have renounced any visible power, nevertheless pursues those dreams of power in her mind?

Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing–or trying not to slide down–the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable–even mere phantasms–as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this touches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.

There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required simply to support our primitive requirements, we wonder, bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.

Eternity eludes us.

At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing , mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this: hold your rank, or die.

At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.

Thus, to withdraw as far as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appanages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea, or perhaps you watch a film by Ozu, and place upon this sorry theater the seal of Art and its greatest treasures.

I know, I know. It’s long. But it’s one of my favorites, and I thought it was pretty representative of how the language is within the novel.

Bottom line, though: READ THE BOOK!!!!

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