The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French author and philosopher Muriel Barbery, was a different sort of read for me. It is a quiet, slow story told alternately by a middle-aged concierge in a stylish apartment building (Renee Michel) and the precocious 11 year old daughter (Paloma) of one of the tenants. Mme. Michel is an intelligent woman that hides her true self from the building tenants, seeking to maintain a clear class distinction. Paloma hides her own secret: a belief that life is essentially meaningless and her plans to commit suicide in honor of her 12th birthday. Paloma and Mme. Michel are brought together when a new tenant moves in, who seems to see both for their true selves.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was both beautiful and trying for me. Philosophy has always felt a little esoteric to me, and there were a couple of chapters of Renee musing about the Beauty of Art that I ended up skimming. But the observations on human nature, by both her and Paloma, were beautiful and left me thinking, holding my place with my finger, for the entirety of the train ride home day after day.
**Spoiler alert (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to hear about the ending!)**
Can I just ask, what was up with that ending??? First of all, it was a bit cliché, right? When I was trying to explain it to C, I felt like I was explaining the end of a Lifetime movie. And yet, it wrenched my heart! Not just her goodbyes, but the fact that she was both right and wrong about her deepest fear after all. She allowed herself to love, to escape her role for her true self, and she did indeed die! Is it only important that she felt truly happy and deeply fulfilled for the first time when it happened? Must we believe that fate would have had her that day regardless, and it was better for her to attain her happiness before it happened? And if we don’t believe in fate, are we to then believe that she brought about her own death? If happiness is the goal, then Renee reached it. But was it enough, having left behind true friends and unlimited potential? I do not know. What do we grieve for when someone dies? Their loss or our own?
Forgetting about the bits that I found a little tiresome and long, and earned almost entirely for the chapters between Mme. Michel and Kakuro Ozu, perhaps one of the sweetest and most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, K’s rating of The Elegance of the Hedgehog: 7/10 mangoes.
Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson, is the sequel to Spin (reviewed here). I’m already mostly through Vortex (the third book in the trilogy) so my review may be slightly influenced by that. I really enjoyed Spin, and I like Axis, too, although each book has seemed to get a little more academic and less story driven than the previous one (that’s an observation rather than a critique). Axis is set on the planet that was linked to Earth in Spin by the Hypotheticals. Lise is searching for her father who has disappeared. She enlists the help of a pilot named Turk Findley, but they begin to uncover some strange developments among a fanatical religious community who have created a child they believe will commune with the Hypotheticals.
Axis moved a bit slower, and had less going on in it, but delved into more detail about the nature of the Hypotheticals and their technology that humans had begun using for themselves. It was interesting, but felt a lot like a set up for the third book, rather than a full story unto itself. K’s rating of Axis: 6/10 mangoes.
The Poison Tree, by Erin Kelly is a mystery? Psychological thriller? Dark drama? I’m not quite sure the best descriptor here as none of them quite fit. It reads with the feel of a classic film noire, but it’s not a gritty crime story. (Although, in the hands of another author it certainly could be.) It tells the story of Karen who meets a bohemian free-spirit named Biba on campus. Their instant friendship sweeps Karen out of her predictable and safe life into Biba’s world of parties and freedom. The story alternates between the present Karen and her reminisces of that summer (10 years previously) when she met Biba and her brother Rex. As the novel unfolds we learn greater and greater detail about a catastrophe at the end of the summer that destroys the main character’s lives and friendships, and hints at some new threat that Karen must finally deal with.
One criticism. There was a lot of what seemed like English colloquialisms that I couldn’t quite understand. Both slang terms and pop culture references (I think) that didn’t translate well to an American reader. It wasn’t too much to interfere with the story, but enough to become a distraction. Otherwise, this novel had a way of slowly wrapping itself around me until suddenly, ¾ of the way through, I was fully engulfed and sat down and read the last 100 pages under my desk at work, unable to put it down. K’s rating of The Poison Tree: 8/10 mangoes.