I read a review of this a while back here, so when, armed with birthday book tokens, I spotted it on prominent display in my local Waterstones, I thought I’d give it a go.  Fiction in translation (in this case from French) isn’t something I read very often, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try something new.

I hate to say it, however, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated by Alison Anderson, did not do anything for me at all.  It left me entirely cold, apart from the warm tingle of irritation that pretentiousness always leaves behind.  I persevered until the end, because the review I read said it got better, but in retrospect, it was a waste of time – at least it’s not very long.

The story revolves around a French concierge who, despite the facade of poor, ignorant, stereotypical concierge that she carefully constructs to decieve her rich neighbours, is actually very passionate about Art and Culture.  Interspersed with her narrative are the thoughts of the 12-year-old daughter of one of her neighbours, who, unhappy with what she sees as the inevitability of a facile, superficial life despite her own intelligence, plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.  There is a lot in the book that purports to be about class struggles, stereotypes and superficiality versus profundity, but to me it just came across as pretentious and snobby.  Renee, the concierge, is so scathing about the way her neighbours treat her as sub-human, despite the fact that she goes to great lengths to ensure they continue to think of her in this way and is terrified of her cover being blown.  At the same time as lamenting their snobbishness and superficiality, she is failing to see them as human, and making what I think of as a hugely pretentious assumption that nobody can appreciate Art and Culture in the same way as she.  It never seems to occur to either of the main characters, who are both so absorbed with their own lives and problems, that maybe they aren’t so special after all, and that if they bothered to try and understand those around them, they would see that everybody has their own worth and their own reasons for being how they are.  This hypocrisy is never dealt with or commented on by the author, and it was this that left me frustrated and irritated – along with the wordy and hyperbole descriptions of Art and Beauty and Culture which were, to be frank, extremely off-putting.  They reminded me of the reasons I’m not studying English Literature – I love books and reading, but hate people trying to read things into a narrative that aren’t there – overanalysis can completely spoil your enjoyment of a perfectly good story.  All together, this meant I had little sympathy for the main characters and found the conclusion of the book (and I won’t spoil it just in case any of you do choose to read it) farcical rather than tragic.

The writing in general was not to my taste – as I said, very verbose, flowery, long-winded and pretentious.  I assume that this is how the original French is written and that the translator is reproducing this accurately, but it is of course hard to tell – perhaps if I had read it in French I would have found it easier to stomach.  But there is no way to avoid the conclusion thatI really have not read a book I enjoyed so little in a long time, which is a great shame.

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