I started "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" finding it charming and fun, found it to be more standard and predictable as it went on, and by the last two chapters, realized it was the worst thing I have read this year, and I have read "Creeper Invasion".
"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a novel by Muriel Barbery, written in French and translated into English, and released in the original in 2006 and in translation in 2008. It follows the life of two neighboring women who are pretending to be something they are not: Renee, the concierge of an apartment building for the very wealthy, and Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of a married couple who lives in the building. Outside of her routine life of daily chores, Renee is intellectually curious, and reads books on a wide number of subjects. Paloma is depressed and critical, and is planning to burn down the building and commit suicide by the time she turns 13. The book is told in alternating chapters (with different fonts) from the viewpoint of Renee and Paloma, but mostly from the viewpoint of Renee. The two women live lives in parallel, unaware that the other one is unhappy with her social role. Their normal lives change when a wealthy and cultured Japanese businessman, Ozu, moves into the building. Ozu suspects that Renee is more intelligent than she seems, and a friendship/romance is started.
Some of that sounds charming, right? So let me explain why it fell flat. While I don't doubt that the class system in France is much more literal and strict than in the US, the book posits that a concierge who "reads Tolstoy and listens to Mozart" is actually an incredible event. While knowing about those things might be related to class standing, it is not like Leo Tolstoy is a highly esoteric author and that Renee mentioning the well-known opening quote to Anna Karenin makes her the master of incredible knowledge. And yet Ozu is literally amazed that she should be familiar with this book. Is it really that incredible, in France, that someone without a college education might find a copy of a well-known classic book and read it? And Paloma, likewise, complains about the society around her, but didn't seem to have any special insights beyond mocking attractive blond girls. She is the basic Holden Caulfield edgelord who thinks everyone is phony. Also, Paloma is planning to destroy the building (although without loss of other's lives) and kill herself in the fire, and yet the book insists she is a sweet and gentle girl, while her older sister, Colombe, is a bitch because she wakes Renee up early looking for an important package. Other than being "Outsiders", Renee and Paloma don't have a lot of character that justifies them being portrayed as "special".
And then Ozu comes down, Prince Charming. The book depicts him in an exotic way, because of course being Japanese, he is cultured and inscrutable. And instantly impressed by Paloma's manga-derived knowledge of Japanese culture. And charmed and besotted by the fact that Renee can read. In some ways, it reminds me of Twilight: girl that we are told is special proves she is special by the validation of a mysterious figure. Just, in this case, Japanese instead of a vampire.
All of which moved it from interesting culture study to pretty standard romance about rich, perfect male validator. But then, in the last two chapters, the book takes the cheapest, dumbest plot twist that I've encountered in a while--- and I saw Red Hook Summer earlier this year. I could barely finish the book without throwing it across the room. A great disappointment.
What is ironic about this book is that it is a book supposedly about people with greater self-awareness of their society, but the book itself displays little self-awareness about its own plot and characters, and the fact that it is going over some well-trod ground, in a predictable manner. This book is why the French aren't cool.