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.