I've realized that there are two kinds of literary experiences I enjoy: reading, no matter what the style, masters of language and thought, and reading books whose characters are crazy endearing. Sometimes these two experiences overlap (see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The House on Mango Street, etc. ) and sometimes they do not. No matter.
As soon as I finished The Brothers Karamazov (master of language/thought category,) I knew that I needed to read something where I would just fall in love with the characters and get lost in the story. In such cases, it is always best to go with a recommendation from a kindred reader. Thanks to Julie Mecca, I spent the last three days reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and fell in love.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis: "Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common in insight or interest or even taste in which others do not share, and which, to that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like 'What? You, too? I thought I was the only one." Of course, such friendships are one of the greatest parts of life...and when a kindred soul passes on a book filled with kindred souls who embody all of C.S. Lewis' words, all things in the world seem right. Sigh.
The book is essentially a mini treatise on the nature of art, philosophy, literature and the question of what makes life worthwhile, alternately narrated between Renee: a self proclaimed frumpy, poor, 54 year old concierge in Paris who is a closet intellectual and lover of all things beautiful and Paloma: a precocious, rich 12 year old girl who lives in the building and is hopelessly disenchanted with the world of privileged masquerading that surrounds her. They are two of the most winsome characters I have come across in a long time.
My favorite thing about these two seemingly disparate characters is that they, as well as I, watch the world for moments of small beauty and ultimately realize that such times are what lends meaning to life. Barbery's skill in naming these moments so so precisely was so impressive that while reading, I just had to stop. And breathe. Reread. Remember.
"When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic."
"There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading..."
"I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?"
I could continue to quote longer passages for quite a while, but the bottom line is this: Renee and Paloma are characters I want to hug and the things they observe in life are given such beautiful, precise language that makes me reconsider how often I settle for using the phrase "this hurts my heart."