• Friday, April 28th, 2023

Muriel Barbery is a French novelist and philosophy teacher. She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1969 and moved with her parents to France when she was two months old. Barbery attended the lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, France, followed in 1990 by the Ecole normale supérieure in Fonteney-Saint-Cloud, in Lyon, France, where she received her agrégation in philosophy in 1993. She has been a philosophy teacher at the Université de Bourgogne, taught in a lycée and at the Saint-Lô teacher training college.

Muriel Barbery has written a few books. Her second novel, The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, was published in French in 2006 and English in 2008 and was translated into several languages. Soon after its publication, it became a bestseller over a long period. It received the Booksellers’ Prize in 2006, the Georges Brassens Prize and many other prizes, and was made into a film. After quitting her job, Barbery and her husband lived in Japan from 2008 to 2009.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog has two narrators in the first person and alternating chapters. The first is a fifty-four-year-old caretaker, Renée Michel, who describes herself as a poor short, podgy and ugly widow, and the second narrator, the rich twelve-year-old school girl, Paloma Josse. Paloma lives with her parents and sister in the luxurious Parisian building at seven Rue de Grenelle that Renée has been looking after for twenty-seven years. Paloma keeps two diaries, “Profound Thoughts” and “Journal of the Movement of the World”, in which she writes about her daily comments on occurrences around her and her deep philosophical analysis of her life, its meaning and absurdness.

Renée and Paloma will become friends towards the end of the story because they mirror each other despite their age and class differences. In common, they have loneliness, intelligence, autodidactism, caustic humour, and being discreet about themselves to not be singled out and left alone. Furthermore, they are aware and lucid of the affected, shallow life of people surrounding them. They also both have an affinity with Japanese culture. Moreover, only the alluring, considerate, middle-aged wealthy Japanese new tenant gentleman, Ozu, can see through them, gaining their trust and becoming a mutual friend.

Renée wants the residents of the building to believe that she is an ordinary concierge and therefore acts like one. She conceals from everybody that she is knowledgeable and self-taught in philosophy, literature, art, classical music, Japanese films and paintings. She secretly reads Tolstoy, Proust, Kant, Husserl and Tolstoi, and is fond of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. She discreetly listens to music by Purcell or Mahler and likes watching Japanese films by the director Yasujiro Ozu. She spends her time in introspection and self-reflection.

Paloma shares with Renée the concealment of her intelligence and knowledge to people around her. She is a precocious, bright child, a good, sharp, analytical and mordant writer, not lacking humour in her descriptions. She is sickened by the superficiality of her bourgeois family and the despicable emptiness of the bourgeoisie’s existence around her as well as the decadence of society in general.

She decides to end her torments by committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday, June sixteenth, by taking sleeping tablets while staying for the night with her grandmother. However, before leaving and when her parents and sister are out, she intends to set fire to her parent’s luxurious apartment and call the fire brigade to save the tenants in the building from harm.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog is a touching, masterfully and elegantly written book with rich, meticulously chosen French vocabulary seldom used today, which enhances the quality of the writing and enriches the story to give it substance to savour with delectation. The chapters are short, the eccentric characters are well depicted, and both protagonists’ reflections are cleverly amusing in tone. The Elegance Of The hedgehog describes the social classes and the contrasting life between “Upstairs and Downstairs” in an opulent building in one of the wealthiest Paris neighborhoods.

The book has a myriad of citations about classical authors, famous painters, films and film directors. Philosophy is palpable in the book, which alludes to the author’s studies and qualifications.

The novel’s title is explained by the perceptive Paloma when she tells Ozu that appearances can be deceptive, “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptivley indolent little creature, fiercely solitary and terribly elegant”.

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• Saturday, April 01st, 2023

Celeste Ng was born in 1980 to Chinese immigrant parents from Hong Kong who migrated to the U.S.A. in the nineteen sixties. Her father was a physicist and her mother a chemist. Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Shaker Heights, Ohio.

She graduated from high school in 1998, followed by English studies at Harvard University and graduation in 2002. She also obtained a Master Of Fine Arts degree in 2006 from the University Of Michigan, where she enrolled in a Creative Writing program. She presently lives with her husband and their son in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s second novel, was published in 2017. It was ranked the best book of the year by over twenty-five publications. It also won awards, was translated into several languages and became an American drama streaming television series in 2020.

The story novel is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where the author grew up. It starts in 1998 in an affluent suburb of the Midwest where the Richardson’s house is burning in a big blaze. Following this event, the story goes back in time, concentrating on two families: the wealthy Richardson family, father, mother and four children and the nomad Warrens, a single mother and daughter. Both entities are acquainted for a short time, soon to be separated.

A year earlier, in 1997, Elena Richardson, who works for the local Sun Express newspaper and who has been married for nearly twenty years to the notable lawyer Bill Richardson, rents her house to two newcomers, a mysterious freelance artist and single mother, Mia Warren, and her teenage daughter, Pearl.

Pearl is a newcomer who attends the same local school as the Richardson’s four teenage children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy. They become friends and Pearl enjoys spending time in their house and sharing their comfortable life, taking solace by spending time among a stable, settled, comfortable, traditional family.

The mothers, Elena and Mia, have very different characters; Elena is a Shaker Heights third-generation resident. She is conservative, ambitious, and attached to her comfortable life. In contrast, Mia is a free thinker who leads a short-term life wherever she goes and scrapes for a living inflicting an unsettled lifestyle on her young daughter.

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful story touching several pertinent themes – a single mother’s problems, responsibilities and hardships. Mia’s concealment of Pearl’s father’s identity illustrates the burden and torment of hiding a secret from the past. There is the solid, innate motherly feeling related to adoption, with Mia as a carrier mother, combined with the sub-story of the Chinese Bebe Chow, who works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant and wants the return of her baby, which she abandoned earlier and was adopted by the McCulloughs couple. Moreover, the author includes the race element (Chinese vs American) mentioned in a court case over the suitable parentage for the child.

The novel also tackles the adolescent crisis with Lexie’s concealed pregnancy and secret abortion and Izzy’s alienation, loneliness and rebellion against the established ways and their opposites. Furthermore, the novel touches on classes in society, identity and an artist’s troubled, struggling life.

All these topics and their simmering fire under the outer crust of an established society were bound to explode and be destroyed for things to potentially start anew, like the mythical bird, the phoenix rising from the ashes as a new rebirth. Mia tells Izzy: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way”. The rebellious, confused Izzy, the family’s black sheep, took Mia at her word and burned her parent’s house. All these themes are woven together effortlessly in this thought-provoking, compelling, sad story with well-depicted, realistic characters.

The ending is left open to the reader, with Elena searching for her fifteen-year-old daughter, Izzy, who left home and whether she will ever find her. To reassure herself, Elena says at the end of the book that if the police cannot find Izzy,“She would look for Izzy herself. For as long as it takes, for forever if need be … she would spend months, years, the rest of her life looking for her daughter”.