Saturday, December 12, 2009

November – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

In November, we met and discussed Muriel Barbury's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Let us start with a quote from one of our members, Lynn: "This book sucked the life out of me." Well, simply stated, this book was kind-of a life-sucker. Why? The first half waxes philosophical. It was an extremely trying read for the first half. I might actually go as far to say that it was more difficult at times to read than my first-year philosophy text, and I had to look up more words when I read this book than when I read Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Our members each admitted that there was a lot of skimming going on during the first half of this book.

However, Barbury, in my opinion, redeems herself in the second half of this book. A sweet little story actually manages to emerge. We get to see Madame Michelle awkwardly fall for the dashing Mr. Ozu, and we get to see Paloma turn from an immature little brat, to a slightly less immature little brat.

However, many of the members felt very negatively about Madame Michelle's attitude toward the rich and/or educated people for whom she works. And I agree. Madame Michelle is terrified as being judged, and yet, she one of the most judgmental characters in a novel that I have encountered in a very, very long time. Her opinion of the rich as shallow, hollow, unthinking, unfeeling snobs is downright offensive. Personally, I was even further offended by her clandestine nature when it came to her own autodidactism. I say, if you're smart—you're smart. Who cares if you're a concierge for a living? There are garbage men out there with PhDs, my friend, and I highly doubt that they ferociously hide their education for fear of being lambasted. Especially considering that the book was fairly modern. We all know that the woman who serves us at Tim Hortons could hold a Master's Degree in literature, and that the next time we get into a cab, the driver may very well hold a Doctorate in physics. It is just the way it is in today's society. Education or smarts is no longer defined by the position you hold in society. It is defined in the way you carry yourself, present yourself, and defend yourself. Madame Michelle, for being as smart as she was, was actually a gigantic idiot. Ugh.

Let's talk Paloma. BRAT. Immature little brat. Her intellect was about 350 years older than the rest of her. However, Paloma is responsible for the most beautiful passages in the book, and one of the funniest passages as well. I just loved hearing her talk about the captive lives of the dogs that lived in the building, and her description of the humping dogs and the owners' horror and subsequent accidental fall were just too funny. However, these gems were rare in this book. One other such anecdote stands out: Mme. Michelle's experience in Mr. Ozu's bathroom. Her anxiety about even asking to use the restroom, followed by the flushing episode was, for me, the high point of this novel.

Lastly, I often take issue with authors who end their novels with a death that does not accomplish or teach anyone anything. Barbury is guilty. Mme. Michelle is unexpectedly hit by a drunk driver at the conclusion of this novel, but why? I assume Barbury would defend it by saying that it was necessary to kill Mme. Michelle so that Paloma could learn the value of life. I would argue that Paloma learns almost nothing, and remains socially stunted. However, she does decide not to off herself, which I guess is a mature decision for a 12-year old. (Can you sense the sarcasm dripping off of the last sentence?)

Overall, not the best novel I have ever read. Most of it is slow, dull, and worthy of only skim-reading at best. However, Barbury did manage to pepper the book with a few beautiful passages, and some very entertaining episodes. Sadly, it was just not enough. Paloma remains a brat in my mind, and MMe. Michelle was hardly likable. As a matter of fact, the only likable character in this book was Ozu, but he hardly gets any story at all.

In January, we will be discussing Sue's choice: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale. I picked this book up already and read the synopsis and checked out the first few pages. It looks like it's going to be really interesting! Hopefully it will be better than The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It won't have to try hard!


Dinner on Dec 15th at 7:00. Be there or be square! Details are already in your inboxes! Reservations are under "Lynn."

January meeting is on the 19th at the usual location at 7:30.

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