Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating:
3 of 5 stars

When I was in third grade, I decided that I wanted to be called "Rene" instead of Marie. We had a copy of the Renoir painting, "Girl with a Watering Can" in our living room, and my dad used to call the girl Rene. I wanted to be that girl. Add to that the fact that my third-grade teacher allowed us to adopt any name we wanted, and he would honor that. Great fun for a third grader, so I was "Rene." I cannot recall reading any other books with a "Renee" or "Rene" as a main character, so Barbery attracted me in the beginning.

As soon as I finished this book, I raced to Goodreads to jot down quotes that I liked--beautiful combinations of words that moved me, like these:

--"If you have but one friend, make sure you choose her well."

--"Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time...When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things."

--"This pause in time, within time ... When did I first experience the exquisite sense of surrender that is only possible with another person? The peace of mind one experiences on one's own, one's certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship ..."

--"In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song."

And I also complained to Mike (who finished this book a few weeks ago) that I did NOT like the ending. He responded that he knew I wouldn't like it.

What to say about a book that makes me appreciate words, art, and sliding Japanese doors in a way I've never done before? It makes me want to slow down and focus on the beauty of the world. But the same book also caused me to skim over passages of the protagonists' philosophies about art and other topics.

About a quarter into the book, I realized that I was reading this book with American sensibilities, so I asked Mike about this. I couldn't understand why Renee felt that she could not reveal her intelligence and personality to the rich people in the apartment house she managed. The American in me had a very hard time understanding this (as have many other reviewers, it seems). He explained that when he was in his British boarding school, the boys treated the house cleaners (Yorkshire lasses) in the very same way, as if they were invisible, and if any one of them had showed any sign of intelligence, they would have been perceived as "putting on airs." That helped me understand this novel a bit more.

One of the Goodreads reviewers mentioned the "fetishizing of Japanese culture." Really? Just because Japanese art and customs are admired in this novel, it means they are being "fetishized"??? (which is not a word!) Other reviewers felt that Paloma and Renee were total snobs, looking down on everyone else while feeling that they were outsiders. This is partly true, but I have to admit I enjoyed some of the snobbery about language and grammar. And how dare someone who is rich and privileged not know how to speak in proper sentences??? There simply is no excuse for that, as Paloma or Renee would say.

So, in summary, I could have skipped the long philosophical passages (I enjoyed philosophy in college, but I am done with that!). The book began to get much more interesting once Kakuro appeared and Paloma and Renee met. I enjoyed the burgeoning friendships between unlikely characters; the appreciation of Japanese art and culture; the interesting female characters (Renee and Paloma); and the subtext about snobbery and the class system. But the ending! Meh!!

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