There are books that make me feel good, there are those that intrigue me.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by M. Barbery served both purposes. It made me feel good about reading as much as I do, feel at ease that there is at least someone out there to share my passion for the more "complex" ideas, and of course it confirmed the notion of judging a book by its cover, in more ways than one...
In the book, we get to meet two diametrically different characters: Renee, the concierge - a middle-aged, overweight simpleton, ready to shout at everyone in her way; and Paloma, a 12-year old upper-class girl - shallow, ignorant, materialistic. Is it really like that? The book gets beyond the surface and explores this elegance of a hedgehog: rough, picky, dangerous on the outside but so soft, cuddly on the inside.
It takes the intervention of a Ozu, a wealthy Japanese man to uncover the potential of the two main characters. He will gain the trust of both and will help us discover the true character in both of them: Renee is a cultured person with a flair for art, music, literature and Japanese culture (here is where I discovered In praise of Shadows). Paloma, on the other hand, is a genius, who sees the uselessness of all the facade around her family and their status, who does not want to become an adult and participate in this masquerade, that thus decides to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.
Ozu manages to bring out the true self of both Renee and Paloma - how difficult is that for us in our society? how often do we not just behave according to everyone else's expectations and go on frustrated but also ... to do otherwise? I find myself several times expecting a stereotype whenever I meet someone of a corresponding "status"- a baker, a butcher, a salesman, people who are not supposed to be bright; then again, I expect today's teenagers to be full on reality TV, wanting everything right now with no responsibility, with empty heads. How often have I not found myself jumping to conclusions without letting the person opposite me open up and show their true character?
This book has a lot to say on social criticism. While it refers to the French society, where - like in several European states - there is still some "class" distinction (remnants of an aristocratic past), I think it can be applied almost everywhere. While the majority of societies have long abolished class boundaries, there is still prejudice (see "snobbery") as to social background. And the more we maintain these "ideals", the more we get trapped in our expectations, not only of others, but of ouselves as well.
Should we instill openmindedness to the younger generation? is there still time for our generation? In both cases, the book replies positively. Paloma, through Ozu's encouragement and her discovery of Renee's secret world, realises how she can keep her ideals, how to see through people around her, and how to face the apathy and shallowness of her family. Renee as well, comes to realise that as long as she succumbs to the "norms" of society, she will remain a wallflower, never to be appreciated by anyone.
I really enjoyed the book, it read almost like poetry, but it also put a lot of questions in my mind and had me think and talk about it for long afterwards...