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Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008).
To observers, such as the affluent residents of her building in the sixth arrondisement, Renée Michel is a typical Paris concierge, from Central Casting, and she works hard to maintain the image, wearing frumpy clothes, cutting her own hair, and adopting a brusque manner. Inside her loge, and in her own mind, Michel guards a different persona, that of a autodidact and aesthete who appreciates philosophy, Tolstoy, Japanese cinema, and opera. Michel, who narrates much of this novel, lets down her guard long enough to let two residents into her private world. One is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old girl, precocious and misunderstood by her family, who lives on the fifth floor and whose journal entries form the rest of this story. The book gives a long glimpse inside one of the posh buildings closed to most tourists. Many reviewers loved it or hated it; my reaction is more mixed.
Here is Barbery’s site. Alison Anderson translated it into English; here is her site. The Complete Review provides a wealth of links, as always. They say it makes for a bizarre social critique that has some superficial appeal but is presented much too simplistically. Yvonne Zipp (Christian Science Monitor) says it has its own elegance. Michèle Roberts (Financial Times) says it consoles rather than unsettles. Ian Sansom (The Guardian) finds it charming. Robert Hanks (The Independent) likens it to a hedgehog turned inside out – superficially warm and cuddly, but with some nasty barbs within. Caryn James (New York Times, Scotsman) calls it quirky and studied yet appealing. Heather Thompson (New Statesman) appreciates the interplay of the characters. Louise McCready (New York Observer) doubts it will play in America. Viv Groskop (The Observer (UK)) calls it profound but accessible. Beth Jones (Telegraph) says the entire tale is soaked in sentimentality. Michael Dirda (Washington Post) thinks you will fall in love with both narrators. Caroline Smailes calls it a delicate and beautiful story of friendship. Smithereens wanted to throw it across the room. Jonathan Birch calls it a fluffy confection of style over substance. Grierson Huffman recommends it with reservations. Dan Sumption calls it beautiful if flawed, and is not alone in faulting the translation. Kalafudra found it unbearable and couldn’t finish it. Anne Hawk found it simply charming. Jan del Monte, blogging from Paris, says it’s a book to read and reread. Jing-reed calls it erudite, humorous, and tragic by turns. Harkinna loved it. Monica Carter (Salonica) says it’s erudite but accessible, intellectual and sweet. Ragan felt smarter after she finished it. It left Ella entirely cold. Annabel Gaskell says the first half was too slow and the second half too fast. Princess Haiku gave it an award. Barbara B. says it’s great. NPR offers this excerpt. More are posted here. Claire (or *claire*) posts some favorite passages.