28 May / The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Renée, a 54-year-old widow, serves as the overlooked concierge of a luxurious Parisian apartment building. She lives with a cat named after Tolstoy, weeps over Bonnie Butler’s death in Gone With the Wind, has no patience for errant commas even as she dismisses the finer points of phenomenology. She hides her expansive intellectual capacity behind her closed doors.
Up on the fifth floor, precocious 12-year-old Paloma, brilliant beyond her short years, decides that she will set fire to her lavish home just as she forces herself into eternal sleep on her 13th birthday. Even though her “Japanese side … is inclined toward seppuku” (ritual disembowelment) – she clarifies her “Japanese side” as her “love for Japan” – she decides she’d rather not suffer in spite of seppuku’s “significance and beauty.” Lost in a culture not remotely her own, our Taniguchi-manga reading, Basho-quoting little girl, too, is an expert in hiding …
Two seemingly disparate characters, so unlike and yet not really so different, are brought together by the arrival of the mysterious new neighbor who takes over the fourth floor, one Kakuro Ozu who proves a gentle, welcoming soul. As their three lives intertwine, each emerges from hidden depths to embrace new life …
Yes, the book has the few occasional cringes: must Asian men always be portrayed as delicate and feminine; why the insistence that the adopted Thai baby will grow up to be a violent pyromaniac because he won’t be able to reconcile his village orphan past with his elitist Parisian rebirth; why include Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, a much-picketed film by the APA community for its endlessly racist portrayals (just had to add link here to Entertainment Weekly review whose first line I couldn’t stop guffawing over)?
But yes, too, in spite of its few glitches, Hedgehog is still a gloriously memorable read. And, as many have discovered, it makes for a most excellent book club choice, as well.
Published: 2008 (United States)