This is my review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery,Alison Anderson (Translator).
My book group was polarised by this unusual tale. Half enjoyed it as a humorous satire of the middle class Parisian intelligentsia, and their obsession with teaching philosophy even to adolescents. These readers were touched by Renée, the self-educated and improbably knowledgeable Parisian concierge, who goes to extreme lengths to conceal her learning and forms a romantic attachment to a wealthy and highly cultured Japanese gentlemen. The rest (including me) were irritated by the thread of arrogance and unjustified sense of superiority which ran through the tale, with its judgemental main characters (concierge Renée and improbably precocious twelve-year old Paloma) and the lengthy passages of philosophy (on, say, the critique of phenomenology, the theories of William of Ockham, or the meaning of art) presented in an intolerably overblown prose which does not translate well into English.
The translation jars in places – "eructation", "time is sublimed", "deleterious hierarchies", "Hardcore autism that no cat would importune". I could go on, but all these examples seem over-literal translations from the French.
What troubled me most was uncertainty as to where fiction ends and the author's prejudices and pet philosophies (she apparently teaches this subject) begin. I was also irritated by Renée's lack of insight e.g. inverted snobbery towards others, and her failure to use her education to stop stereotyping and so misjudging her wealthy neighbours -apart from the Japanese Kakuro who is seen through rose-tinted spectacles.
There are plus factors in the form of some entertaining comic dialogues e.g. when Renée encounters two neighbours who fail to recognise her since she is out of her usual milieu, on a date with Kakuro, and thought-provoking insights on e.g. the superiority of sliding doors, or the meaning of the moment when a rose dies – other readers will no doubt find different examples that strike a chord.
If only this book could have been written with a defter touch, and more narration of events as they arose rather than reported in the pages of dry or pretentious journals, I would have rated it much more highly.