First, Elegance of the Hedgehog was the much talked about novel from the French author that hit the American market in 2008. This book is a little hard to get into and admittedly not a lot happens so if you are looking for action or an easy read, this book is not for you. However, if you are a lover of books and all things culture, then this book speaks directly to you!
The main character, Renee, a concierge of a fancy-pants apartment building, is a low-class peasant with the heart, mind and soul of an aristocrat. She plays dumb for the residents, who are more than happy to believe her, all except for two, an elegant Japanese man and a precocious, perhaps suicidal, 12 year-old.
Please don’t think of these two as sidekicks, they are fully formed characters with lives of their own. Now back to ‘not much happening,’ this may be unfair. Although the comings and goings of the residents are secondary, and Renee hardly leaves her flat, her life is a fertile ground of good books, good movies and good conversation. Her passion for all things aesthetic transports her, and you, away from the drudgery of the over-privileged into the world we all wish to live in. Of course, this is a french novel and at times tragic, but ultimately I was moved by the beauty Renee sought in a world outside her own.
And now for Gourmet Rhapsody, (technically this book precedes Elegance,) this book cleverly turns one of those over-privileged residents into its main character. A loathsome Parisian food critic is on his death-bed, literally. As any of us can manage, with death looming, one takes inventory of his life, searches for something missing. The foodie scribe is searching for the perfect taste. This book differs than Elegance in that the food critic is not likable, where it would be a privilege to know Renee. But despite that, Ms. Barbery imbued so much passion into the critic’s recollections that you can imagine a man worth knowing, if only his fond memories were about his family rather than his meals. He recalls times from early in his life where he first experienced a taste that leads him anew in a search for his final taste. He is a snob, has made a career of being a snob but at the end of his life, he begins to glimpse this may have been the wrong path.
There is no happy ending or redemption here, but the prose is so beautiful that it really doesn’t matter. The lesson is learned in the final minute but does it really matter at this point? After reading both books, I wonder if I knew french and read the originals, would it be as beautiful? Or maybe some of the credit should really go to the translator, Alison Anderson. In any case, I feel lucky to have read these words.
These books, Gourmet Rhapsody and Elegance of the Hedgehog, were purchased by Boston Book Bums for our biblioholic enjoyment.