Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guest blogger Max Leone: The Inelegance of The Elegance of the Hedgehog: A Book Review

Fourteen-year-old Max Leone has a lot of opinions about books. Some of those opinions have appeared on this blog and some of them have appeared at Publishers Weekly. He lives in New Jersey with an assortment of reptiles, amphibians, and humans.

The Inelegance of The Elegance of the Hedgehog: A Book Review

I realize that The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (which was translated from French, and is set in Paris) is not exactly meant for the “young adult” demographic. However, I read widely, and after reading this book I decided that something had to be done. I heard someone raving about this book, the plot sounded interesting, and it was a surprise bestseller. Then I read it. And I realized that I must act to protect the public from this pretentious leviathan. The goal of this article is to keep as many people as possible from buying this book.

For the lucky people who have not read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, it is a story that will make you want to defenestrate smart people. One of these people is Paloma Josse, one of the two main characters. She is a twelve-year-old a genius. She hates her life full of people who don’t understand me because I’m oh-so-special and so much smarter than they are and because of this, she plans to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. And burning her house down. Because my stupid parents and sister think their life is so great and they never think about all the poor people who lose their homes and I’ll wait until they leave to do it because I’m not a criminal even though suicide and arson are crimes. But wait! She’s actually more unlikable than that! She is a stuck-up, insufferable genius who feels the need to pseudo-philosophically criticize anything and everything, because she is so much better than this world of cruel idiots who don’t understand me.

And she is a weeaboo. A weeaboo is someone, usually a teenager, who has developed an unhealthy obsession with Japan, to the degree that they think everything Japanese is wonderful, Japan is so much better than anything else, Japan is the magic land of unicorns, rainbows, and happiness etc. They constantly insert Japanese phrases in their speech. Paloma has all these qualities, and she’s the one we are supposed to root for. Excuse me while I bang my crude, inelegant American head against a crude, inelegant American wall. (Also, “manga”, Paloma is plural. “Mangas” is not a word.) At one point wondergirl watches synchronized diving and mopes for a half-hour because two of the divers were out of sync. Yes, this is the person we’re meant to sympathize with and root for.

Reneé Michel is the other protagonist. I hate her marginally less than weeaboo wondergirl because she is somewhat less annoying. She is a concierge and autodidact (oh, how this book has polluted my vocabulary) who, due to some universal law I have not heard about, forces herself to act like the person you’d see a picture of if you looked up concierge in the dictionary. She’s pretentious, and spews as much BS as Paloma, but her lack of precociosity (I refuse to say “precociousness”. This book made me start a rebellion against proper spelling and grammar. Join me, my fellow compantriotades) makes her more tolerable. She is also a weeaboo, but to a lesser degree than wondergirl. She is also unlikeable. For example, at one point she observes that one of the tenants misplaced a comma in an invitation. This is apparently the end of the world for concierge, who collapses into a chair in shock. She than goes on a tirade that the tenant has “no excuse” to make a typo because she is rich. Her exact words are “To the rich, therefore, falls the burden of Beauty. And if they cannot assume it, then they deserve to die.” No, I did not make that up. This is the person we are supposed to root for. This, is, ridiculous, isn’t, it? And, yes, I, am, doing, this, out, of, spite.

You will notice I have not discussed the plot at all. That is because it does not exist. The first third or so of this book is made up of Renee and Paloma making observations on their daily lives. I have no problem with this per se, since it can help flesh out the characters and introduce the setting to the reader. But it should not take up half the book. Yes, Paloma is a genius surrounded by idiots, we get it. Yes, Renee “breaks stereotypes”. We get that, to. Finally, after slogging through 134 pages of slimy, thick, constipated prose, something happened in the book. Namely, Kakuro Ozu appears. Kakuro is a Marty Stu. Which is to say, he is a perfect, idealized character, who came from some parallel universe with only two dimensions. He is rich, he is intelligent, he is handsome, in an old man sort of way, and he makes the lives of wondergirl and concierge better. And his toilet plays Mozart when you flush it. That last one is actually in the book, by the way. Anyway, wondergirl and concierge meet him, become magically happy, wondergirl stops being suicidal, then concierge get hit by a truck and dies. Yes, Muriel Barbery is evil. She probably has a long mustache that she twirls while constructing her death ray.

The one thing about this book I hated more than the unlikable characters and the unstory was the philosophical musings that take up most of the book. They are… almost indescribable in how infuriating they are. Most of the book is made up of pretentious observations on random things. That is how Ms. Barbery the diabolical makes the story of concierge, wondergirl, and Mr. Stu last for 325 interminable pages.

Whenever I saw one of these sections come up, my heart filled with dread. I had to read them more than once, since my mind refused to concentrate. I felt like screaming “No one cares about how beautiful a summer rain is, hurry up and get hit by a truck already!” I have no idea how people can live like that, their minds over-interpreting everything. A Maori rugby player dancing is not just a dance, it is “motionless movement”. When a woman trips, it is not just an accident, it is “…a Bacon come to life before my very eyes…” I have no idea how someone’s mind can even work like this. However, the worst part about these “intelligent” observations is how utterly meaningless they are. They don’t improve the world or really anything. These mental abominations just seem to have been frankensteined together for the purpose of being pretentious. A keyboard is a tragic thing. All the letters imprisoned. It is a great dishonor to them to keep them like this, locked in oubliettes of plastic. That was not from the book, that was from me. I made it up in a few seconds. And it means nothing to me. It’s the kind of thing you would find in this book, the kind of think taken to be “deep” and “profound”. And yet it means nothing. It contributes nothing to the world, and it is maddening in its meaninglessness. And that it is the thing I hate the most about The Elegance of the Hedgehog.


CD Covington said...

I got to "weeaboo" and started laughing. In my chair. At work.

Manga, technically, is both singular and plural, because Japanese doesn't use plural markers, relying instead on context. It also doesn't use subject markers, pronouns, and verb conjugations to indicate person. It's a fun language to wrap your brain around if you've grown up speaking one Germanic language and majored in a second in college.

OK, I like anime, and I studied Japanese for 2 years because of it. But I'm not a weeaboo, I swear! ;)

David said...


I want Max Leone to write novels. I'll buy 'em.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Conni--Fortunately there's a difference between having a like for Japanese culture/anime/manga/whatever and being a complete weaboo. Max Leone's definition is actually pretty good!

I'll be inelegant here and say, "Holy crap, I'm impressed that a fourteen-year-old wrote this." Would that all adolescents have such a vocabulary and grip on language in general.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic review! If ever I come across a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I will spit on it and kick it to the curb. I now feel compelled to find books Max Leone DOES like.

Nathan said...

Have you considered the possibility that this book made perfect sense in French...and then was translated into English by Lapp Reindeer Herders without access to artificial light? Huh? Huh? [/sarcasm]

Excellent review.

CD Covington said...

Kristin - I know. I just wrote that out and thought, "Wow, that makes me sound like a nerd." (And I went through a weeaboo phase; I think most fans do. I was younger then; I didn't know better! ;) )

Also, I wish I could have written criticism half that good at 14. Or even now at 33, when I get stuck at "It's a doorstop filled with pretentious wankery and characters I want to kick in the teeth." (Which could refer to a LOT of books out there ;) )

ellen9 said...

Hilarious review. The mock prose with "oubliettes of plastic" killed me.

But consider The Pigman. Isn't there a whole genre of young adult novels in which there are some misunderstood kids, and then a wise adult who's not like the others, and then some death? Didn't The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler follow this template, but with no death?

Perhaps this book is a elaborate French joke mocking such books, non? Perhaps not, oui? Perhaps I only wish it were so.

Okay, what do you think of that Oscar Wao book? This is fun.

Cathy in AK said...

A weeaboo and a concierge, yet not a hedgehog in sight. (Or is the guy from the parallel universe the "hedgehog"?) Must be literature.

Amazing review. What's next?

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I haven't read The Elegance of the Hedgehog but this review feels as shallow and pretentious as the book it seeks to protect the public from.

Yes, this kid has a great grasp of English vocabulary but this is not a good review. All this "review" does is attempt to both show off how smart Leone is while thumbing his nose at people whom he assumes believe themselves smart because they happen to have read and enjoyed a particular book. This is literary snobbery, plain and simple.

While I might feel the same way if I read this book (having read the plot synopsis, it held no appeal for me), Leone might be better served by studying literary criticism and learning to put together a balanced well thought out piece. Stringing together a series of S.A.T words does not a scholar make.

David said...

God, no. Let's hope Max Leone never does study literary criticism. It could destroy his impressive writing ability.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Studying literary crit doesn't erode your writing abilities anymore than studying 20th century German history makes you a nazi.

David said...

Shaun, you're confusing literary criticism with the history of literature.

usedbuyer 2.0 said...

Shaun, "the book from which it seeks to protect the public."

I'm just sayin'.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

David: The only thing I'm confused about is how this is a review and not just an attempt by a very intelligent teen to appear smarter than the book he's attempting to skewer for being too smart.

I give up. Maybe the NY Times should hire him as their reviewer and call it a day.

Used Buyer 2.0: My bad! Luckily the grammar police are here to correct my blog comments.

Caroline said...

Quite an enjoyable review—I wish I could have written that well at fourteen! I had a lot of book-related anger at that age, though hardly the means to express it like this.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Max, you'll be committing a crime if you don't go on to write your own books. If this is how you write at 14, there aren't words to describe how wonderfully you'll write as an adult.

Amy Lukavics said...

I hope I don't get shot for this, but I have to say that I was a bit turned off by the tone of the review. Yes, it is very easy to see how smart this kid is, how his skill in writing is topnotch for his age, etc. etc. etc. But this really came off as more of an angry rant than a review. (And I'm not saying angry rant reviews arn't amazing...the angry video game nerd is one of my faves)

Yes, it's okay that he hated it. It's okay for anyone to hate/love any book. But some of these comments are just silly...for example the one that said if she ever saw the book, she'd spit on it and kick it to the curb.
Trusting reviews is one thing, but deciding to blindly agree with the reviewer just because the article was well written just seems....blah.

For the record, I have never read this book, nor am I trying to say that it is probably an amazing book. It may be the worst book many people have ever read, but if there is even ONE person out there who loved it, the author has done her job.

I did enjoy reading the guest blog and can't wait to see more stuff that Colleen may have in store for us. <3 Woo!

Elissa M said...

I don't see anything wrong with writing an angry rant for a review, especially since the author pretty much says at the start that it's an angry rant.

I agree with Nathan, however. It's possible the book makes more sense in French. And perhaps even more sense if one also happens to be French.

Still, Mr. Leone read the novel because of rave reviews by others, who possibly also read the English version. Thus, the problem may not be in the translation at all.

More likely, the problem is that peoples' tastes vary. Still, I suspect that Mr. Leone's tastes to not veer far from mine in this case. I do tend to dislike novels which are supposed to be "good" for me. Too much literary study in college, I'm afraid.

Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar, you know. And sometimes the emperor has no clothes, but only the youth is brash enough to say so.

Anne R. Allen said...

The ghost of Alexander Wollcott haunts the Swivet! What an elegant poison pen, Mr. Leone

Froglivers said...

No, really. You have to read this book to see how spot on this review is, and once you have, pat yourself on the back for not throwing it out the window (with the window closed).

I completely understand the sentiment of some of the commenters -- HEY! MEAN!

But hehehe, there's something about coming across the perfect MEAN review that vindicates your ire /after/ reading.

Thanks ML

John said...

I have not read the book, but I agree with Max's overall sentiment (as I understand it) that a lot of books try to impress you with their "genius," forgetting plot entirely. Just tell me a good story -- a white kid and slave runaway on a raft, three ghosts visit a miserable miser, two teenagers from warring families fall in love with one another -- and I'll figure out if it's genius or not.

lizB said...


Don't hold back, Mr. Leone! Tell us how you really feel.

Great review. If they were all like this, I might actually read them.


Karen Denise said...

When I first started reading this review I thought the main character was supposed to be like those geniuses on The Big Bang Theory. You know, the loveable genius that looks down on everyone but you still kinda love her. Clearly that's not the case here. The blurb about the book doesn't seem to be anything I'd want to pick up, but if it was in a genre I read, I'd look for other reviews before making my decision based off of this one review.

Anonymous said...

Okay, my two cents: A review is an opinion. Nothing more. In my personal opinion, Shaun, there is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" review. Studying literary criticism doesn't change the fact that a review is NOTHING more than one person's opinion. Studying literary criticism doesn't turn opinion into fact.

what I'm getting here is that this writer's work is entertaining. Go, Max. For some it came off as pretentious. BFD. That's their opinion, they're welcome to it. I just enjoyed it. This kid has a good voice.

So, here we are, reviewing the reviewer...should we study literary criticism so we can make good reviews?

David said...

Next we start reviewing the comments that review the reviewers.

I guess we've been doing that for a while, though.

Christine Tripp said...

Shaun, there is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" review.

No, there are good and bad reviews and I personally only want the good ones!

I am thrilled you have actually posted a bad review about a book that I am sure (well obviously, it was published) someone thought was "artsy". I'm so sick of reading about how rain fell like pin pricks" etc. Harliquin has any number of books on that subject. But... so called art can pull the wool over any number of eyes.

Brooklyn Ann said...

I thought the review was entertaining. It is fun to crucify someone on paper. I would, however like to see a positive review done by this kid.
It saddens me that negative reviews are often lengthier than optimistic ones.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I'm sensing extreme #sense-of-humor-fail in some of these comments. Lighten up, people! You're not getting the joke, apparently.

I personally thought the book was horribly overwritten, and had to put it down halfway through. (Yes, finally, at my age, I've given myself permission to not finish bad books.) Props to Max for being able to finish it at all.



Anonymous said...

Lol, Max. You have a career as a book critic ahead of you. I had not heard of this book, but you can rest assured that I won't ever be looking to buy it. Mission accomplished!

Anonymous said...

With you on the missing the humor part, Colleen. This was funny. It was enjoyable to read. Sarcasm doesn't translate well in print, though Max does a good job.

David, your reviewer might have been a "real" reviewer, etc. But I didn't laugh out loud and quote them to my girlfriend. Their review might have been thoughtful, insightful and articulate, much more refined, but they didn't brighten my day with their words. Max did.

They informed. Max entertained. That's what I'm liking. Was it a good review? As in well done? I was too busy laughing my butt off to care about that.

This was funny. Hi-freaking-larious. Again, props to Max for some great writing. Thanks for posting this one, Colleen.

David said...

Colleen, have you signed Max yet? Or should I not ask such a question?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

David -

I politely beg to differ. No book or author DESERVES respect. They have to earn it again and again and again with each individual reader. You may not like Max's review, but he DID read the book and is giving us his honest opinion. Just because he presents it in a sardonic manner doesn't mean it fails as a review. In fact, as a former professional book reviewer myself (San Francisco Chronicle), I'd say he did exactly what most reviewers fail to do: persuade an audience.



Unknown said...

David -

Forgot one thing: Just because a reviewer is young doesn't make his opinion any less valid as a reader.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brooklyn Ann said...

I didn't introduce myself before. Hi guys, I'm Brooklyn. I must say, this site is even more stimulating than Shelfari.
Anyway, David, I don't think this author has too much to worry about. The book is still selling, and bad publicity is better than none.
This situation reminds me of the Twilight books. Some love them, some hate them, but they are selling either way.
My postings about it were quite venomous and I could always count on a response.
Okay, going fishing now. Have a great day, all!

Unknown said...

Would you guys be bitching so much if you didn't know Max Leone's age? Just wondering.

I thought this review was awesome. He got his points across as to why it sucked, and amused me with snark as well. Double bonus! And yes, he writes better than college graduates I know (sad fact there).

Anonymous said...

Kind of sounds like Ayn Rand for kids. In other words, it sounds pretty fucking dreadful, and I guess I'm going to take this boy's warning and stay well enough away!

RR Kovar said...

This review made me laugh, and then it made me think. Does it matter to me that the reviewer is 14? Only because I am impressed by his willingness to finish what he thought was a particularly bad book that nonetheless came highly recommended, and then to explain fairly clearly why it was he found it objectionable. That is better than many people could do, and I agree with Colleen - if the goal was to persuade, it worked.

I've studied literary criticism and it is quite often bunk. Don't get me started on literary theory. I got more out of this young man's opinion than I did out of entire books of lit crit. Why? Because, ultimately, it is the readers who decide what makes a good book. Obviously, many people have found this book good and therefore recommended it. That does not mean everyone will, and Max's opinion is just as valid as that of the next reader.

Anonymous said...


I understand where you're coming from, but one of my earlier comments might show us having common ground.

A review is an opinion. It's one person's opinion. It isn't fact. Personally, I don't go by reviewers' opinions. They all have one unsurmountable character flaw. They ain't me. They have no idea what I might like about a book.

I loved Star Wars. Reviewers panned it when it first came out. After that, I stopped caring about what reviewers thought. I was 9.

I am reminded of a scene early on in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Pt 1. "Shortly after the first artist, came the first art critic....." Cue tasteless but hilarious visual.

John the Scientist said...

Conni, Japanese has perfectly good generic plural marker - "tachi", used when the concept of a generalized plural needs to come across, and is not clear from the context. If you speak Japanese, you must use "watashi-tachi" for "we" all the time.

But most of the plural markers in Japanese are in the "counters", which have only weak counterparts in English. You could say that the word "pair" is a counter in English (e.g. "two pair of pants", usually you don't say "two pants"). Manga is a topic word, and "Two manga" would translate to "Manga o ni hon", with a definite plural contained in the "ni hon" counter.

Japanese also has pronouns, although they don't function exactly the same as they do in Indo-European or Sinitic languages. "Watashi", "boku", "kanojo", "kare" and "anata" are all perfectly good pronouns, although you'd better be on pretty intimate terms with someone to use the latter - gaijin overuse "anata" and my first Japanese teacher said we sound like honeymooners when we do that.

Having studied Japanese and lived in Japan, I hate weeaboos with a passion. They make the rest of us normal gaijin look like idiots.

And having seen far too many salarymen with barcode haircuts reading pornographic versions of Sailor Moon on the train, I ain't too fond of manga, either.

Anonymous said...

What a fabulouly hilarious review!
Unlike some here, I think the tone was pitch-perfect, exactly the right note with which to deflate the pretentiousness of godawful purple prose.
If it's any help at all with the rage, I'm a bookseller and this book has a very, very clear demographic (from sales): elderly ladies who have read a review somewhere about the "beautiful writing". Sadly, this has also meant high book-club sales numbers.
Never had anyone tell me they loved it and I should read it...wonder why? Have had lots of people tell me "it's pretentious" and "empty" though..."empty" is not a word you want any reader to use about your book, ever.
Hope to see more from Max here.

Brittany said...

This is the best thing I have read the whole day, even encompassing the first eight chapters of the Deathly Hallows the third time around. This is coming from a teenager, by the way. Go Max!

That Writer Chic... said...

Next time I see a weeaboo, I'll be sure to give her the Sistahood's starfish sign (That is the secret, well now not so secret, adaptation of the well known loser sign). Either that or I'll show her how to properly jump off a bridge at low tide. That tends to end all attitude problems.

Anways, thanks for saving me money on buying the book. Now I can go buy a happy meal.