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"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

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There come times when you hope you aren’t the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often, whose statements about this or that book have caused calluses to grow in people’s hearts and not to trust their devoted reviewer. If they have, I want to take it all back and beg you to trust me about this book. A bestseller in Europe, highly praised wherever it was reviewed (this space will be no exception), “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” will stun you with its own elegance, with its erudition, and with its wisdom.

Originally published in 2006 in France as “L’élégance du hérisson,” this marvelous second novel of Muriel Barbery charts the highly refined intellectual journey of a fifty-four-year-old Paris concierge from isolation to a full, loving embrace of her life and loved ones. Our heroine, Madame Michel, has read deeply and widely of the world’s narrative masterpieces, and has delected the great art of the world, recognizes and appreciates the world’s great music, and is more than passingly familiar with the themes of modern philosophy. And in her strong intelligence, her reading bears the fruit of a highly sophisticated wisdom. (However, all is not Tolstoy, Mozart, and Vermeer: at a critical juncture in the narrative, Madame Michel finds meaning and persuasion in a lyric by rap artist Eminem.)

Madame Michel’s narrative alternates with that of Paloma, an unhappy young girl who is part of a family that lives in the apartment building. Each in her own way, they ponder the function and effect of Art in our lives, and jointly their understanding has a deep and highly persuasive effect on us. The book is completely beguiling – a delight to read and thought-provoking in the extreme. Mme Barbery brings us into the confidence of these two very different-but-similar female characters. We love Madame Michel and learn to love Paloma as the book proceeds, and the alliance of the two is too brief – we regret that it can’t take up more of the story – such is the author’s effectiveness with her characters.

I need also to devote a moment to the seamless and virtuosic translation by the novelist Alison Anderson. This could not have been an easy book to translate, but this just might be better than Michael Hulse’s rendering in English of W.G. Sebald’s “The Emigrants.”

For most of this unique book, philosophical considerations share space with skewerings of modern manners and pretension. The fact that such beautiful and heartbreaking love unfolds late in its pages just strikes me as miraculous, and a tribute to Mme Barbery’s powers. I doubt very seriously if I will a better book this year.
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