I loved "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery. It's one of the few novels I've loved that has little action, a slow-moving plot, and is full of philosophy and sentiment. Usually, novels following this description bore me (e.g. many of "The Classics".) Yet, I found this one beautiful, humorous, and as its synopsis reveals, wonderfully redemptive.
In a way, I find that I am similar to the main character, Renee. Not in that I have some horrible secret in my past that is ruining my life, but rather in her personality, quirks, and mostly her critical spirit. ;) My favorite parts of the book were the passages in which she cleverly judged another character. I can't help it. I loved it. Other readers found it pretentious and annoying, and I found it just enough like myself that I couldn't get enough. With great intelligence and articulateness, Renee mentally ridicules members of her apartment complex for their poor use of language, complaining about such mistakes as using the word "bring" when it should have been "take" (one of my favorites). Yet, one of the many redemptive qualities of the script is that we find that Renee always goes on to judge herself as well. She spends paragraphs over-analyzing every word out of her mouth in a hilarious and yet tormented way. One of the most humorous scenes is her attempt to respond to receiving the gift of a book from the new, upper-upper class tenant, Mr. Ozu:
Her response: Thank you, you shouldn't have. -The concierge
Half a page later:
"A simple I'm afraid I don't understand, signed, the concierge, would have conveyed the proper meaning.
Or even: You've made a mistake, I'm returning your package.
No fuss, short and concise: Delivered to the wrong address.
Clever and definitive: I don't know how to read.More devious: My cat doesn't know how to read.
Subtle: Thank you, but Christmas boxes are given in January.
What have I done, instead, but simper as if we were at a literary salon?
Thank you, you shouldn't have.
I propel myself out of my armchair and rush to the door.
Woe and damnation."
"Simper as if we were at a literary salon." Brilliant. (What's more--translated from the French--let's have a "Brilliant!" for the translator, Alison Anderson!) Renee's "elegance" is portrayed in moments such as this passage--her clear humility, low self-esteem, self-doubting that is revealed despite her critical spirit. And I loved her character for it.
The characters, plot, and message of this book will stick with me for a long time. The language, the philosophy, the imagery (including the tastes and smells), and the contrasted personalities are powerful and gentle all at once, leaving the reader with a sense of despair and hope all wrapped up in 325 pages. I recommend it.
Here is an image taken by one of my flickr contacts of his late hedgehog, Mr. Mumbles. I think in a way it actually represents the elegance of a hedgehog.