Monday, August 2, 2010

Response: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I nearly pitched a book last night.

There I was, finishing up the lovely story of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  I had invested my time and energy into a handful of fascinating people who, for nearly 300 pages, had captivated me.  Okay, it was slow going at first, but once I figured out the rhythm in this book, I liked it.  It was originally written in French, but as the characters are French and live in a swank apartment building in Paris, one would expect to feel translation — and a rich, enjoyable one.  Plus, knowing author Muriel Barbery is a French professor of philosophy who now lives in Japan helps to understand why and how the novel was written.

Two narrators share the storytelling responsibility: Renée Michel, a 53-year-old concierge at a Paris apartment building filled with rich Parisians who see her as a fixture, and Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old girl who lives there and plans to commit suicide and burn down her parents' apartment when she turns 13 in a few months.  The two don't take turns as much as fill in the story as time passes.

Tim passed more slowly than it should in a novel.  The setup was a maddeningly long fuse.  Once the bomb went off, however, the story rocked.  The characters were fully realized, readers cared about them and all secrets seemed to be revealed — some in lovely, juicy scenes that made me wish to weep.

And then, Barbery stumbled over some of the debris of the explosive story.  I don't mean the story or writing stumbled because it didn't.  The quality remained stellar to the end.  The characters remained true.  The author thought she was throwing us a great curve.

That's not how I see it.

Here's how I see it: Barbery was mean.  She had the ability to give us a story that ended in a way that those who love the characters would appreciate.  Instead, she — well, all I can say is that I feel betrayed for investing in these characters and their fictional lives only to have the story do what it did.

Does that mean the story was successful?  Does that mean the book was that good?  I may answer those questions once I stop fuming, but I can't make promises.  I still haven't forgiven Jodi Picoult for her cheesy and terribly unsatisfying ending for My Sister's Keeper (which I never will recommend to fellow readers), but even that is different: Jodi copped out and didn't let the characters continue their story to the end.  Barbery did not take the easy road and remain safe — and to be fair, I might have been disappointed had she taken the safe route, and I never want my authors to take the safe route.

Barbery, I suppose, wrote the story as it should have evolved.  It was beautiful and fulfilling and heartening and lovely and tragic and exquisite.  I am sorry my new friends (and I) experienced what we did in this story, but perhaps we got what we deserved: a very captivating read.

2 comments:

  1. Don't pitch it. Try reading it again (in a few months, when you're done fuming!).

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  2. Sound advice, Katie. I think I will give it another go. I did enjoy it otherwise — and when I can respond that viscerally to a book, usually it's a good thing. (Jodi Picoult aside.)

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