This was the set book for an October book club, and I had picked up a copy in anticipation from the most recent Canberra Lifeline Bookfair. This book must’ve caught my eye previously because while tidying up some of my books over the weekend I discovered I had a second copy bought from an earlier book fair. It has quite an inviting title, so I was pretty eager to see what all the fuss was about.
“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery was originally published in French and is set in a very well-to-do apartment building in Paris. Madame Renée Michel is the concierge and to all the wealthy residents appears just as a concierge should: uneducated and without ambition. However cracks start to appear in her facade when a new resident moves in and discovers her rather cultivated tastes. Meanwhile, 12 year old Palome is struggling to find meaning in her privileged life as the second daughter of a Parisian parliamentarian and has decided to commit suicide on her next birthday.
I’m going to cut straight to the chase: I didn’t like this book. I think I would have liked it if it had been published 100 years ago and was a ground-breaking story set during the Aesthetic movement between an impoverished widow and a Japanese man importing objet d’art Japonisme to upper-class French collectors – now, that would have been something. Instead, this novel is supposed to be a modern critique of classism yet really all it does is substitute that a historical form of snobbery for intellectual snobbery. The character of Renée is extolled as being the pinnacle of refinement because she loves Anna Karenina and can recognise Mozart. However, this kind of Eurocentric idea of being cultured really grated against me. Personally, I don’t think that liking one of the world’s most famous books or being familiar with one off the world’s most well-known composers is either special or noteworthy – even of a concierge. The book was published in 2006 not 1906; regardless of your occupation or educational background, anyone can access anything they’re interested in via this incredible new invention called the internet.
Barbery also has some pretty questionable attitudes towards the non-European characters in the book. Japanese people are all painted with the same brush with many definitive sweeping generalisations starting often with “Japanese women are…” or “Japanese people are…”. Kakuro is a generous but one-dimensional character who is wealthy, shares exactly the same interests as Renée and seems also to be lumped together with this reclusive woman with his implied “otherness”. Barbery comments on how a Eurasian character has both masculine good looks and Asian “gentleness”, suggesting that masculinity and being Asian are mutually exclusive. In fact, at one point Barbery says of Kakuro that he almost looks Eurasian, as though the more European he appears the better. A character with African heritage is described completely unoriginally as having hair like the mane of a lion of the savannah. Although not overt, you can’t really ignore the undercurrent of ethnic superiority in this book.
In summary, I thought that this book was overwritten, far less profound than it purported to be and extremely heavy-handed in the messages it was trying to convey. The two narrators were almost indistinguishable in tone, and the relationships between the characters were underdeveloped and overblown.