Top critical review
on 20 August 2017
I found this book disappointing. Perhaps rereading it in a more receptive state of mind I'd see more of the qualities that make some readers so enthusiastic. I don't really think so. I could see Barbery's personal intelligence, articulacy and intellectual sophistication clearly enough. They kept me going and kept me hoping for a redeeming change of perspective. It never arrived. In the end I half felt I'd wasted my time on a book that became not less but more laboured, cliched and sentimental as it went on. I felt it trapped the reader in two points of view - those of the concierge, Renee, and the supposedly brilliant twelve year old Paloma, both of which were patently inadequate in ways that screamed out for illumination but each of which kept such a tight grip on their section of the narrative that there was no alternative way of seeing things. Taking the two views at face value condemns you to a very partial, grossly sentimental view of the events narrated; you may resist this view but it's the only dark glass the book offers. Of course theoretically I could have seen Renee as limited and self-deceiving and felt a deep pathos in in those very limitations and delusions and I might do on another reading, but that's not how it worked for me this time.
I only half feel I wasted my time, though, because I'm currently reading Barbery's Une gourmandise, which focuses on one of the minor characters in L'elegance du herisson - the obnoxious food critic - and reading it with great pleasure. This is partly because of the evocativeness of the prose, but partly because perspectives are constantly shifting in ways that delight and surprise, and because it's imaginatively stretching and liberating to be made to see things from the point of view of a character so far from being automatically or sentimentally sympathetic.