Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog or book clubbing in March part 2

March was the first discussion month for the online book club my friend Lizzie started. The selection: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog was an interesting experience for me. After hearing all the buzz I was really looking forward to reading the book, in fact it was one of the ones I suggested for inclusion in the reading list, but tracking down a copy was a case in frustration (as per usual, at least for me, the "on the shelf" copy wasn't on the shelf in Lockwood. After checking twice, I put a trace on the book and it yielded nothing). Eventually I gave in and ordered a copy, which I didn't receive until after the discussion period had already started. I planned to read it right away straight through (as I'm wont to do) so I could participate in the discussion, but once I started it soon became apparent that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not a book that can be read quickly.

When Paloma (the 12-year-old protagonist) on page 37, in only the third line of her narration, announces that she's going to be committing suicide in a few months I was shocked and horrified and I really wasn't sure whether I'd like the novel. Nevertheless I continued to read, persevering through all the dense philosophical passages, and ending up loving the novel.

Europa Editions has a really fantastic discussion guide available on its website. Our discussion leader brought it to our attention and pointed us to questions 1, 2, and 9 as starting points for our discussions.

The philosophical interludes, for me, were the most difficult portions of the book. I had to fight my desire to skim when they came up. Because of my educational background I have a better grounding in philosophy than many, but I was still overwhelmed by the amount and detail included the novel. I had to laugh, though, at the passing reference to Melanie Klein because I only know about her because one of the characters in Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street books is obsessed with her.
The fact that Barbery is a philosophy professor explains the inclusion of the interludes (as does Renée's solitary and intellectually inquisitive character), but I do think they are off-putting to many readers. The philosophical musings decrease as the plot progresses, making the novel easier to read and Renée easier to relate to.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is how very easy it is to relate to the protagonists and how utterly unsympathetic they can be. Both Paloma and Renée are experiencing things we all experience--being misunderstood, un(der)appreciated, feeling alone even when surrounded by others--but they way that they act distances them from the reader. In particular, one can't help being turned off by the self-righteous way that both of them describe the others who inhabit their world. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is essentially about the humanization of Paloma and Renée so as each of them changes she becomes more sympathetic.

My favorite part of the novel, I think, is when Paloma puts Dr. T., the psychoanalyst, in his place:
'Listen carefully, Mr. Permafrost Psychologist, you and I are going to strike a little bargain. You’re going to leave me alone and in exchange I won't wreck your little trade in human suffering by spreading nasty rumors about you among the Parisian political and business elite. And believe me--at least if you say you can tell just how intelligent I am—-I am fully capable of doing this.' (209)
I have to admit that I think part of the reason I like this bit so much is because of how I feel about Dr. Fairbairn from the 44 Scotland Street books. I think Fairbairn is even more deserving of Paloma's vitriol than Dr. T.

I'm always interested in the meaning of books' titles, especially when it isn't apparent. In this case the title's genesis is Paloma's description of Renée:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terribly elegant. (143)
One of the reasons I was drawn to The Elegance of the Hedgehog was its intriguing title, but I appreciate the title even more now that I know that it's meaningful.

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