In the recent New York Times Book Review article, "The Kids' Books are All Right," the (adult) author, Lev Grossman, says: “A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot. I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.” Ah yes, storytelling. I like storytelling. I'm not particularly interested in long, snobbish treatises on -- among other things -- urinary tract infections, grammar, Japanese film, Tolstoy, sex among teenagers, French lingerie, etc. masquerading as stories.
There are 113 holds at my library for Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (43 on the audiobook). [Apropos of nothing in this post: There are 516/23 holds on Mockingjay! Just two more days!] I can imagine that 100 of these people will put this book down after 100 pages (if they get that far), wondering what all the fuss is about. I really disliked this book. I am a compulsive finisher, so I just powered through -- amazingly completing it in just five days.
Let me start by noting that on Tuesday I am out on my morning walk and I've finished up with Disc 1. I click on my mp3 player to the next disc in the queue. (The window of my player is too small to see the entire name of each disc.) I am a full 10 minutes further down the road, when I realize that I'm not listening to Disc 2. And this was only because I happened to think that Paloma -- whose chapter headings are labeled Profound Thought Number ... -- hadn't quite gotten up to the number that she indicated. It turns out that the lowly staff person who does things like digitally label each disc had a brain cramp and spelled Elegance "elegence" while identifying Disc 2, so that it fell at the end of the list of discs. Contemplating that person and his/her entry level job was much more interesting than this book.
Briefly, Hedgehog is the story of Renée Michel, middle-aged concierge of a fancy Parisian apartment building. In spite of her peasant-like appearance, she is an autodidact (a word she uses to describe herself) of philosophy. She explains -- for those of us who don't live in Paris in a concierged apartment building -- that concierges generally aren't like her, and that the people who employ her shouldn't know this about her since it would set their worldview so drastically atilt that they might not recover. She lives in her groundfloor apartment (her "loge") and feels utterly superior to those around her ... while never letting these feelings on. And, does she go on and on about this ...
Paloma Josse is 12 years old and lives in one of the apartments in Mme. Michel's building. She is fed up with consumer culture and the intellectual emptiness of the world and vows to commit suicide and set the apartment building on fire on her 13th birthday. She also prattles on about her superiority ...
One of the tenants dies, and his apartment is purchased by Kakuro Ozu, a Franco-Japanese businessman. (Yes, something does happen in this book!) Kakuro sees through Renée's disguise fairly quickly, and befriends Paloma. Both are changed by the experience. There is a story-ish plot development at the end that left me feeling ripped off, but by this time I was extremely cranky. All I can say is that I never would have made it through if I'd been reading it to myself. Thank goodness for Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris!
They both read the pretentious prose very, very well. On the page, the characters just lie there, standing in for the author and her opinions about the shortcomings of pretty much everything but Leo Tolstoy and the films of Ozu Yasuhiro. But in Rosenblat's and Morris' experienced, capable hands, both Renée and Paloma become flesh and blood. The Odyssey Award-winning Rosenblat reads with a world-weary bitterness that is tempered by her enthusiasms and by the sheer joy Renée takes from being superior to all around her. When Kakuro comes into her life, Rosenblat sends Renée almost into a tizzy of unfamiliar feelings and optimism. She reads with a low, almost growling voice that adds to a listener's sensation of not quite liking her.
Morris is equally masterful. When I first started on Amazing Audiobooks, I loved her reading of Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere, but -- except for a beginning reader -- I haven't heard her read anything else. Morris has a very youthful voice and she interprets Paloma with a spot-on combination of innocence and cynicism. There's a young person wanting to see good things in the world hiding behind Paloma's shaky veneer of jaded intellect. Morris' reading has those tween inflections and pacing that make Paloma real. Her loss at the end of the novel is almost heartbreaking (except that I really didn't care).
And now that I've made a late-summer foray into "lit-ra-chure," let's get back to some good stories!
The Elegance of the Hedgehog [L'élégance du hérisson] by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Narrated by Cassandra Morris and Barbara Rosenblat
Highbridge Audio, 2009. 9:30 (unabridged)