review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

18 11 2008

What act of divine intervention lead me to The Elegance of the Hedgehog last week?  I’m really not sure.  I was killing time in Walmart before meeting a friend for a late lunch.  I headed for the book aisle even though I was firmly resolved to continue my non-book-buying ways, and it seemed like I would make it out of the store without a purchase of any kind.

And then I saw it.  It was the title that grabbed my interest.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  I’d have to say it’s right up there with one of the best titles I’ve seen recently (next to Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth, which I would have bought just for the title alone except for the fact its only out in hardcover right now).  I hadn’t heard anything about it, even though the cover told me it was an international bestseller.  I read the inside blurb and I was struck by the humour right off.  I read the first page right there in the Walmart aisle and was captivated by the voice of Renee, the concierge who pretends to be everything expected of a french concierge (ugly. plump, has a cat, watches soap operas, etc.), but who secretly devours art, literature and philosophy.  Well, I was sold.  I left the store with my wallet a bit lighter, but with a definite treat in store for me.

And it was a lovely book.  I can’t think of a better word to describe it:  it was just simply lovely.  The story is told from the perspective of two characters: Renee and Paloma.  Paloma is a super-intelligent twelve year old who is planning to end her life on her thirteenth birthday because she has come to terms with life’s futility.  Until that happens though, she is keeping track of profound thoughts and “Journal of the Movement of the World” (her records of beautiful movements of the body she witnesses).  Paloma’s story may sound depressing, but it really, really isn’t.  There is her writings about what she sees as the futility of life, but it has so much to do with what she sees around her and the behaviour of her family and the social group she belongs to, and more than anything her journey is about discovering the importance of doing something, of continuing to try in spite of feeling that futility surrounding us.

The lives of Renee and Paloma are suddenly connected when a Japanese business man named Ozu moves into an apartment in the building.  Almost instantly he sees beyond the character that Renee has created for the outside world and through his attention, through his friendship, she eventually deals with the truth behind the mask she has worn for so long.

I don’t want to ruin anything about the book for anyone that hasn’t read it, particularly the ending.  I will say though I was a weepy mess by the end.

I turned down a few corners (not as many as Wild Dogs – though that’s not a fair comparison as I could have turned down virtually every page in that book) and here’s one passage that hopefully doesn’t give to much away.  This is from one of Paloma’s “Profound Thoughts” journals.  Ozu has been talking to her about a passage in Anna Karenina and even though she isn’t that interested in much of what he said about the book, she felt a “sudden joy” when he talked about the birch trees in the scene he was describing.

“There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insigificance when we are surrounded by nature… yes, that’s it: just thinking about trees and their indifferent majesty and our love for them teaches us how ridiculous we are – vile parasites squirming on the surface of the earth – and at the same time how deserving of life we can be, when we can honor this beauty that owes us nothing” (169).

The warmth and humour I felt when reading the blurb radiated from the whole book.  There was so much in it about hope and about the ability to change (change yourself, change your views, change the person you present to the world, etc.) and about our connections with others.  There was just so much to learn and so much to enjoy about The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

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