About a hundred million years ago, my mother loaned me a book entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Written in the original French by Muriel Barbery, it was translated to English by Alison Anderson.
I started reading it a long time ago, but I stopped after a while. Probably because I felt incredibly stupid. This book has a way of addressing philosophy, culture, politics, and life in such a way as to make one feel very simple. Not to mention that I am not so good with the French. I will eschew all pretense of humbleness and say that I have quite the knack for languages. Never French though. It always eluded me. The pronunciation, the conjugation, the extraneous letters. Sometimes I even think they throw in extra accents on some words that are completely superfluous, their only purpose being to make sure the reader is still paying attention.
Anyway, I was unpacking in my new home in Texas (yes, I’m living in Texas right now if you can believe it) and I came across this book with my hologram bookmark still inside it, marking where I left off.
I took this as a sign that I had done enough work for one day (read: no work at all) and sat down to give it another go.
That was a couple days ago.
Today I finished it, and I am sitting here now to recommend it to you.
This book follows two stories. That of Renée, a middle-aged concierge and widow whose job it is to cater to the rich snobs who make a habit of looking down on her or right past her. And that of Paloma, a twelve-year-old prodigy who is desperately trying to figure out the meaning of life and her place in it.
Despite how it might sound so far, the book manages to get away with a great deal of profundity and intelligent discourse without losing the reader because it is written completely without pretension. The two main characters simply observe the world in their own particular capacity, and you, the reader, find yourself following along without feeling a sense of condescension from the author.
It’s brain food, to put it simply. I find the book is best read the way a jacuzzi is enjoyed. Immerse yourself as much as you feel comfortable, and just relax. Sometimes as I was reading I found my mind glazing over, not really focusing too hard on the words. And that was okay. The great thing about this book is that something is bound to pique your interest, and if a particular section doesn’t, you can simply float through it.
For example, I was particularly taken by a passage on adolescent behavior, which I will quote below for you.
And secondly, a teenager who pretends to be an adult is still a teenager. If you imagine that getting high at a party and sleeping around is going to propel you into a state of full adulthood, that’s like thinking that dressing up as an Indian is going to make you an Indian. And thirdly, it’s a really weird way of looking at life to want to become an adult by imitating everything that is most catastrophic about adulthood…
— The Elegance of the Hedgehog, pg. 192
This quote struck home for me because I grew up around kids who bragged about how drunk they got over the weekend, who threw parties in their parents’ empty mansions while mommy and daddy were away in Bermuda or whatever. It was a cry for help and attention, and all the while they told themselves they weren’t just doing it to look cool or to rebel. That they were doing it because they wanted to, because they just didn’t care, because they understood the consequences of their actions, when none of that was true. I know I sound high and mighty, but I didn’t partake. It frightened me how desperate my peers were for an escape. Hell, in high school I wanted to escape too, but I coped by closing myself off from my family, lashing out at anyone who tried to help me, and burying myself in books and video games.
Hm….on second thought, maybe I should have tried the drugs.
But anyway, the writing is beautiful. Barbery, through Anderson, has produced a piece of artwork with sentences like strings of pearls. I could never produce anything like this. For one, because I have not memorized the OED, and for two because if I attempted it I would just end up flailing through a piece that dripped with pretentiousness.
What really sealed the deal for me was the dry wit, the humor. Leaving you chuckling, understanding the source of it, and wanting more. It’s not overused either. The book is perfectly seasoned with it.
So go down to the bookstore or the link above and give it a try. It will be well worth it, and at the very least you might sound smart while talking about it, so you can lord your intelligence over those undereducated paupers you call friends and family.