The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions: 336 pp., $15 paper
It is its own genre: apartment-building novels. In each apartment, a different storyline, a daily drama. Each character hides a secret life. Renee, 57, has been the concierge of a luxury Parisian building for 27 years. She looks and acts, outwardly, like a cartoon character, consciously playing the role. She pretends to watch TV incessantly. In reality, she has devoted her life to art, culture and “the quest of timelessness.” Paloma, a 12-year-old autodidact who lives in the building, also hides her true identity, pretending to be an obnoxious pre-teen when, she is, in fact, a genius. She plans to kill herself at the end of the year, on the day she turns 13, to avoid the mediocrity of adulthood. All novels are bound together by tension, a kind of literary adrenaline that courses through the paragraphs. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is a high-wire performance; its characters teeter on the surreal edge of normalcy. Their efforts to conceal their true natures, the pressures of the solitary mind, make the book hum.
To Love What Is
A Marriage Transformed
Alix Kates Shulman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 180 pp., $22
On July 22, 2004, at 2 in the morning, Alix Shulman’s 75-year-old husband, Scott, fell 10 feet from their sleeping loft in an isolated cabin on an island off the Maine coast. He broke most of his ribs, both feet, and punctured both lungs. The fall caused many blood clots in his brain. This is a book about what the phrase “for better or worse” really means. It is also about the nature of dependence and independence, both requirements for a healthy life. The injury to his brain causes several transformations, most of them temporary, in Scott’s personality. “Can his injury have transformed his very self . . . ,” Shulman wonders, “or revealed a buried self I never knew?” In the context of a late marriage “of two autonomous souls,” Shulman carefully examines the hopes and expectations she brought to the phrase “growing old together.” She wonders, in the throes of intensive caregiving, what it might have been like if he had died. “Forget it,” she thinks, exercising her will over this train of thought, “he’s alive, he is mine, and I am his.” She proclaims: “Amor fati! Love your fate. Love what is.”
The Slow Food Story
Politics and Pleasure
McGill-Queen’s University Press: 196 pp., $19.95 paper
The slow food movement is a beacon of hope. Born in the Italian town of Bra in Piedmont by Carlo Petrini, the movement held its first Terra Madre conference in 2004, attracting people rich and poor from all over the world, the elite gourmet foodies and the growers from developing countries. Slow Food is a political and aesthetic movement. It is more, Geoff Andrews writes, than “a nostalgic retreat from the realities of the contemporary world,” though that is an important source of its appeal. It is also, in its emphasis on locally grown food, a “prescient response to life in the era of globalisation.” “The Slow Food Story” takes us all around the world, beginning in Italy. It is the story of a visceral, powerful effort, committed to cultural and biological diversity, to the value of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage, to eco-gastronomy and to a scale of living that is economically and spiritually more human.