Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I like to think this book started out as a good idea, and I even think I know what that idea was: how would you set out to write a 21st century answer to Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple."

As such, the heroine here is an apparently ordinary middle-aged woman, one who has spent her life as a mostly invisible concierge, having nothing happen to her. Barbery empowers her, gives her a deep intelligence and the drive to teach herself the great heritage of the humanities, and the results at their best are some beautiful and moving passages about beauty and appreciating the quiet life.

Barbery hedges her bet from the start by giving us a second character, a child prodigy who is so brilliant that she's decided life is too boring to live. She too writes some very nice passages, and the interplay of the two journal-writers starts out movingly and impressively.

So, I found myself enjoying the early part of this very much for its quiet language and striking central characters. It was OK with me that "nothing happened" because I understood that as a premise of the work.

I was less OK, though, with a narrative clumsiness that worsens throughout. At first it's minor: it's clumsy to end a chapter with the 'cliffhanger' that "Then someone knocked on my door." It's even clumsier to do it three times.

Then that got more serious: it isn't until almost two-thirds into the novel that the characters move from their separate private reflections into something like conversation. And it's really not until almost the final tenth of the novel that we have revealed one of the main character's supposed great hindrances to her happiness. Then the novel confronts that otherwise forgotten history as a central fact, tying it up quickly and unsatisfyingly. [SPOILER ALERT: I'm referring to when we learn only very late that Renee had a sister who died after an affair with a wealthy man.]

And finally, the end is so unsatisfying, so much the product of happenstance -- and so awkwardly breaks the convention of Renee speaking to us through her own journal [SPOILER ALERT: How, under such a convention, can Renee narrate the final moments of her own life?] -- that it undid much of the remaining good will I had for the winning tone of its opening 40-50 pages.

I did like the beginning a good bit; if not, I would not have seen this one to its disappointing end.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment