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The Elegance of the Hedgehog Paperback – September 2, 2008
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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In a bourgeois apartment building in Paris, we encounter Renée, an intelligent, philosophical, and cultured concierge who masks herself as the stereotypical uneducated “super” to avoid suspicion from the building’s pretentious inhabitants. Also living in the building is Paloma, the adolescent daughter of a parliamentarian, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot bear to live among the rich. Although they are passing strangers, it is through Renée’s observations and Paloma’s journal entries that The Elegance of the Hedgehog reveals the absurd lives of the wealthy. That is until a Japanese businessman moves into the building and brings the two characters together. A critical success in France, the novel may strike a different chord with some readers in the U.S. The plot thins at moments and is supplanted with philosophical discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor, leaving the reader enlightened on Kant but disappointed with the story at hand. --Heather Paulson
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
INDIEBOUND TOP TEN BESTSELLER
A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A BARNES AND NOBLE BET BOOK OF THE YEAR
A CHICAGO SUN-TIMES FAVORITE BOOK OF THE YEAR
Praise for The Elegance of the Hedgehog
"Gently satirical, exceptionally winning and inevitably bitersweet."
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about love. But not the sappy, head-over-heels variety. Rather, it's about the love of one's friends. It's about the love you can experience when you connect with strangers. And it's about the possibility—but just that—of romantic love."
—The Huffington Post
"Both [of the book's protagonists] create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renée with the erudition and Paloma with adolescent brio."
—The New York Times
"Astute social satire and abstruse German philosophy are rarely found together, but here they are in this ingenious work of fiction."
—The Boston Globe
"In this supple novel of ideas, a best-seller in France...two autodidacts share an allergy to grammatical errors (the concierge considers a misplaced comma an 'underhanded attack') and a love of tea and moments of ineffable beauty. Barbery's sly wit, which bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations, keeps her tale aloft."
—The New Yorker
"This fable of love, frienship and the beauty of art not only gives innocence a voice, but also shows what a powerful novel can do: transport, educate and, ultimately, console."
—The Toronto Star
"The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a high-wire performance."
—Los Angeles Times
"[The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells] a beautiful story with a large cast of fascinating, complicated characters whose behavior is delightfully unpredictable...No idea is too big or small to find a home in the Parisian apartment building where most of the characters live."
—The Wall Street Journal
"This dark but redemptive novel, an international bestseller, marks the English debut of Normandy philosophy professor Barbery...By turns very funny (particularly in Paloma's sections) and heartbreaking, Barbery never allows either of her dour narrators to get too cerebral or too sentimental. Her simple plot and sudden denouement add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts."
"Hedgehog is really an international book, focused as it is on universal topics of childhood, philosophy, love, and art."
—The Daily Beast
"This story, like all great tales, will break your heart, but it will also make you realize—or remember—that sometimes the pain is worth it."
Top customer reviews
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This is a very remarkable book, full of deep (but not pretentious) philosophical rumination disguised as the day-to-day trivialities of life in an unremarkable apartment building in Paris.
Also, the translation is itself quite remarkable. What must have been very idiomatic French has been rendered as equally idiomatic English (American English, at that). Since I don't read French, I can't be certain about the accuracy of the translation, but I had to keep reminding myself that it was not originally written in English.
In the story, Renée Michel and Paloma Josse are the two main characters, who although living in the same apartment building do not know about each other and how much they are alike until more than halfway through the book.
Renée Michel is a 54-year-old concierge from humble beginnings but with a developed mind and tastes who hides behind her vocation. Paloma is the 12-year-old, soon-to-be-13, who comes from a rich well-educated family; she despises her family, their snobbery, and the life she is being forced to live. Both Renée and Paloma concentrate and reflect on the nature of true beauty, art, and the meaning of life and death.
Without giving much about the plot, I can only say that when one of the tenants in the building die and his apartment is bought by a Japanese man who understands and befriends both ladies, and then the two learn about each other and connect. The story has a sad but poignant ending.
Although the novel has an immense amount of sophisticated cultural, philosophical, and enlightening thought, it also has a delicately balanced emotional side to it with gentle and reflective twists and turns and remarkably touching scenes at its end.
The story is written from the two viewpoints of Renée and Paloma. The viewpoints are in different chapters and in two different typefaces; thus, it is easy to know who is the speaker. The characters are wonderfully developed and in addition to the original theme of what makes life worth living, the themes of hypocrisy, class consciousness, and the importance of arts and letters in a life make this a unique novel.
I loved this novel for its delicateness yet at the same time its intensity and for its referrals to cultural icons and thoughts and the characters’ musings on them. There are some things about the characters that coincide with who I am. This, too, may be part of the reason why I enjoyed reading this book so much.
The two main characters Renee, the concierge of an apartment building for wealthy tenants, and Paloma, the younger daughter of a couple of married tenants, were much alike. Both were extremely intelligent but had negative self images and thought others looked down upon them. At the same time each was critical of the very people they thought looked down on them.
Another trait the woman and girl had in common was dwelling on philosophy. At times I felt as if I were being lectured to by one or the other. Each seemed to spend almost all of their time in their heads. It got tedious.
The last third more or less was better after a new tenant arrived and was friendly with both Paloma and Renee. He redeemed the book to some degree.
I have only two bones to pick with the author:
* It seemed like a quite a coincidence that one apartment building would be blessed by three very eccentric characters, who are rather alike in their eccentricities; and
* The ending was a cop-out. It felt like the author got tired of plot development or something, and just decided to do an emergency ending. We were not prepared for this throughout the book. A cowardly way out.
That said, every page contains passages that are stunningly beautiful. The insights and jabs at sociological behavior made me laugh out loud a few times. The fate of a gifted person can be a very sad and lonely one in this crazy world of ours; this book reminds us that a friendship can blast through all that and make life worthwhile.
I wanted to be able to reread the comments at will and so I bought this book in hard copy.
Caution a bit of a spoiler here...
I do wish the ending had been different. I can understand that in some ways the author had predicted it, but still we all want good people to succeed in the end.
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