Review of THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by MURIEL BARBERY
(translated by ALISON ANDERSON)
I both loved and hated this book, so I seesawed about whether or not to review it. I prefer reviewing books for which my comments are primarily positive; criticism is easier to write than praise and I would rather spend my time promoting good books than bashing those I dislike. Then I realized that I'm seesawing about the book itself. I don't love it. I don't hate it. Yet that doesn't equal out to apathy! Every moment in THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG made me feel something, a strong something. I'm tempted to dissect the book and give parts five stars and parts one star, but my mixed feelings do not at all amount to an average impression of the entire book.
What didn't I like? Only two aspects really, but two big aspects: the writing style and the characters. The writing style is very heavy, often rambling and digressive. After finishing a long paragraph, I couldn't help analyzing how the same concept could have been condensed to one succinct sentence. It has to be said, though, that this is a translated work and perhaps what read as awkward and chunky might be beautiful in the original French (or perhaps the French have a different concept of beautiful writing). While mentioning the style, there's also an abundance of weighty lines that feel intended be greater and more meaningful than they are. However, every now and then a line buried in the layered tone really did ring true to the extent that it redeemed those that felt forced.
The story alternates between two characters, a middle age concierge and a depressed preteen. Often the voices seem near indistinguishable, more like the author's voice in both cases than individuals with their own tone and at times they even feel like megaphones for Barbery's own philosophical rants. This book also uses different fonts for the two protagonists. As I've mentioned in an earlier review, this technique is an instant turn off for me, because strong voices should distinguish different characters. To be fair, this is almost always a publisher, not author, decision, but one that I consider a warning sign that the voices aren't unique enough.
Don't brush this book aside yet! It's time for what I loved. While the individual characters fall a little flat, something magical happens when they interact. They don't change into someone else, but the different character relationships pop off the page in a way the individuals never do, not to mention that interactions highlight all their subtle differences. This leads into a potentially endless philosophical discussion: what does it say about humanity when individuals blend together with a similar dullness but jump into life when they form relationships? Anytime two or more characters collide, the story comes to life with an incredible vibrancy.
The ending deserves mention, though I find myself lost in my own muddled feelings. I both loved and hated the ending. Sometimes I lean more one way than the other, but what I can say for certain is that it isn't "blah." This is one of those books where the ending plays an especially large role in the overall story and how you feel about the book. Most likely, you will either find it significantly moving or you will feel like a hippopotamus stole all your cookbooks and wrote a rap song about it, in other words, too blindsided to react.
Whether you love or hate THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, I'm convinced that this is a book to feel passionate about, not one that earns a shrug and "it was okay, I guess." If the purpose of books is to make us think and feel, mission accomplished.