Sunday, May 29, 2011


The perils of bestsellers?

Yet again I read a bestseller several years after its bestsellerhood has come to a close. Yet again I find much to love within this bestseller, and yet again I encounter an infuriating and unexpectedly violent ending that has me almost almost regretting I read the book at all. Why make us care so much about a fictional character, only to... and right at the very end of the novel, just when things were going so well? This may be why I don't have much patience with contemporary fiction these days. Anyway, all that is to say that a few nights ago I found myself both weepy and angry after staying up way too late to finish reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa 2008).

Setting the needlessly dramatic ending aside - a true bummer of a deus ex machina - I must say the novel has many fine things to recommend it. For one, it employs a central plot device I love - that of the apartment building in which many people live, whose stories gradually unfold around a few preternaturally observant main characters. Also, the writing is intelligent, philosophical, and introspective. I must mention one of the finer bits early on - this, from our aging, unattractive, private, deeply bookish heroine:

"I have read so many books... And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading - and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she's been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure." (p.53)

Long live the gift of freedom and adventure in reading! (Conversely, boo-hiss to official discourse and the steady guiding hand!) And - a plea I'm sure will remain unanswered - god save me from experiencing any more shocking events in otherwise decent fiction!

Yes, the ending is a terrible illogical shock. More so in the film version (which is a good adaptation,I thought. Josiane Balasko is just right) even when one knows what is about to happen.
Hi Lesley - nice to see you here again! I'm glad to hear your opinion regarding the novel. As I was finishing it, I was distraught and thinking "Is a plain old happy ending too much to ask...?" In this case, apparently so. Too bad, I would have been so content and satisfied with such a thing.

Perhaps I should advocate for warning labels on the outside of certain books. Such as "devastating denouement: read at your own risk."
I found myself vacillating between liking/disliking Rene so frequently that the end was almost a relief. Almost.
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