Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson (2006)
Europa Editions, 2008

So I borrowed this as an uncatalogued paperback from the library.

Sometime last autumn. ::deliberate vagueness::

I felt lucky because, as it was uncatalogued, it wasn’t being tracked the same way as the catalogued copies, which of course had a seemingly endless queue for this title.

I snatched it up and read the first 50 pages and thought they were intriguing, the voices of the concierge and the girl (who was considering suicide) unique and engaging.

But not engaging enough to keep reading. Apparently.

So…Borrow, Renew, Renew, Return.

I think I got stuck in Profound Thought #2 and just never picked it up again, and then it was due.

But the next time I went back to the library, I saw it there again, called it kismet, and took it home again.

Borrow, Renew, Renew, Read same 50 pages, Return.

By this time I was feeling more than a little guilty. A book deserves a good reader and obviously there were others waiting for this on a hold list who weren’t lucky enough to see it uncatalogued in this branch.

My reader’s cheeks were burning and I don’t think I would have borrowed it again…except that I saw not one, but three copies of it in paperback, so I took it home again.

(See, three: how could I not see this as a sign?!)

This time I was determined.

Borrow, Read same 50 pages, Renew, Renew…and it’s still sitting there unfinished, two days before the duedate.

I am shamed, so shamed that I put aside Liza and her parrot and force myself to read to page 200.

And then I knew that I would have to pay whatever small fine was necessary because I needed to know how things ended.

By the last quarter of the book I felt it was the most charming novel; I still did not want to finish it, but not because my marker had gotten stuck in Profound Thought #9, but because I didn’t want my contact with these characters to be over. I was ever-so-grateful not to have missed out on this.

But is it for everybody? Perhaps not. Here’s an excerpt, spoiler-free, from mid-way through that gives an idea of the tone and style:

“There is always the easy way out, although I am loath to use it. I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God — all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease. Thus, as I have neither future nor progeny nor pixels to deaden the cosmic awareness of absurdity, and in the certainty of the end and the anticipation of the void, I believe I can affirm that I have not chosen the easy path.”

See, in the right kind of mood, this kind of philosophizing makes me chuckle. In another kind of mood, it makes me stumble. And there’s a fair bit of this throughout the novel as more than one of the characters spends an inordinate amount of time with her own thoughts, so if it’s not your literary cuppa, you might want to save yourself the multiple renewals and choose another book.

But, if you persevere, there is a surprising warmth to be had as some of these lonely and alienated characters find comfort, of a sort. ::deliberate vagueness::

And there are many shorter sentences that have an inherent charm (see below).

What about you: have you ever struggled to read something and then found yourself smitten? Or have you tried this one on for size and had a different experience?

Selected Short Quotes:
Manuela is a simple woman and twenty years wasted stalking dust in other people’s homes has in no way robbed her of her elegance.

The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but unfortunately our cats have such drooping bellies that this does not apply to them.
Profound Thought #2 (Note: I can’t believe I got stuck here!)

When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?