On November 4, 2009, a very, very unusual thing occurred in the Greenwald household. I turned off a World Series game in progress, choosing rather to return to a book I had begun a few days earlier. An unusual act for an unusual book.
For months, a friend had been assuring me that I would absolutely love a book called The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I trust her judgment, but still. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”? What kind of a book is that?
TEotH, as I shall call it, is a book that blends the stories of two disparate characters living in a wealthy Paris condominium. Renée, the concierge (the caretaker) lives in the building, but possesses a social status that falls way below that of the very wealthy residents. She is 54, widowed, stout, and insecure. Paloma is the twelve year-old daughter of one of the wealthy residents, who already knows how she intends to die. What they share in common is an innate intelligence and perception which they hide from everyone else.
The author, Muriel Barbery, tells the story in the first person through the eyes of both characters. We come to know each remarkably well, and the worlds they inhabit. Increasingly, those worlds begin to overlap more and more and in the end, each has a profound impact upon the other, and upon the reader as well.
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Years ago when I saw the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus I wiped the tears from my eyes knowing that my emotions had been manipulated. I did not care because the movie made me happy. Most of the time when a popular creative work evokes tears, those tears have been manipulated. Sentimental strings have been pulled and the aimed for response predictable. The creator knows that, for example, if he includes a scene of reconciliation between a guy and his dad, tears will flow, because most guys long for that reconciliation. The tears have nothing really to do with the story or the characters in the story, but with the emotional realities of the audience.
I had a deeply emotional response to this book, but it was not manipulated. It was because I had come to KNOW these characters and to care for them. When the book ended, I was parting with people who had become real for me. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a book.
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TEotH is part novel, part diary, part social commentary, and part philosophical treatise. As a consequence, it might be slow going at first. Reflections on Karl Marx do not usually draw in quickly those of us used to the immediate hooks of something like a Tom Clancy thriller. Readers who stay with her will be rewarded. Through these seemingly random reflections we come to know a couple of strikingly real and interesting people. And if we listen carefully, we might come to be more perceptive observers of ourselves and our own worlds.
I should add, those of you who are fans of Anna Karenina
will find a home here. Among the many references to that novel, we find that one character has a cat named ‘Leo’ and another has two, one named ‘Kitty’ and the other ‘Levin’.
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Part of what makes this book remarkable is the fact that it is a French novel translated into English. So much of the humor of the book hinges on observations about the use and misuse of grammar and language. A joke is made that turns on a character mistaking ‘habeus corpus’ with ‘baby porpoise’. Another hinges on a misplaced comma. How the translator (Alison Anderson) brings these references from one language to another is part of the wonder of the book.
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The popularity of some books result from the author’s reputation. The latest Stephen King novel was the number one seller at Amazon.com a week before it was released.
A French novel in English translation by a relatively unknown author with a strange title must owe its popularity to the passion of friends insisting that friends read it. Such passion says as much about the readers as it does the book.
When I last checked, over a year after its publication it was still the 46th best selling item on Amazon.com. It has been 42 weeks on the NY Times best seller list. There is a passion for this book, though I cannot say what it is about our culture that this book has invoked.
All I know is that here I am, telling my friends to read the book. It invoked a passion in me. So, turn off the TV and read.